Leeds International Film Festival review – No Country For Old Men

No Country For Old Men (2007)

Dirs. Joel and Ethan Coen

122mins

Screened: Thursday 15th November, 2007

Warning: SPOILERS for both book and film 

While reading Cormac McCarthy’s 2004 novel (reviewed here) this summer, I was struck by how cinematic the prose was – consisting mostly of flat descriptions of characters’ actions, I imagined it in my head as a series of still and tracking shots, without incidental music or ostentatious camera tricks. It says a lot for both McCarthy’s skill as a writer and the Coen brothers’ skill as filmmakers that the screen adaptation look a lot like I imagined it. Opening with several shots of the Texas countryside, as Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Bell talks in voiceover about a job where several of his predecessors didn’t even carry weapons, we are quickly thrust into a world of random violence as the enigmatic Anton Chigurh brutally murders two people while escaping from custody.

We then follow savvy local Llewellyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin) as while out hunting in the desert he discovers a load of bodies, heroin and a briefcase containing $2 million. He grabs the cash and returns home, but after a fatal miscalculation he’s forced to go on the run, pursued by Chigurh and various other interested parties.

The heart of this film is the trio of male leads that cross each other’s paths, pursuing different objectives. Javier Bardem does an excellent job playing Chigurh – as impassive as an Easter Island statue, he’s less a hitman than an Old Testament vision of death made flesh. Brolin plays Moss well as an unsympathetic “hero”, who we only identify with because of the terrifying nature of his antagonists. It’s Jones, however, who represents the book and film’s moral heart as Bell, the decent, principled servant of the law who comes to realise its meaninglessness in a country he no longer recognises.

The film is slow-paced, but never sacrifices tension to the feel of the story. In fact, the two complement each other very well. Watching Chigurh stalk his prey or Moss try to outsmart his pursuers is all the more engrossing for the time the Coens take. There are two terrific scenes which had me gripping the armrests in fear – the first a shakily-filmed chase sequence where Moss attempts to outrun some drug dealers across a bleak desert, and the second a shootout between Moss and Chigurh outside a bordertown motel – where the action is expertly handled and realistically portrayed. McCarthy’s dialogue, which due to his lack of quotation marks often lies flat on the page, comes to life here and embellishes the typically Coen-esque mood of black humour, without seeming deliberately played for laughs. 

What few criticisms I have come from not seeing enough of Bell in the film. The book shows him jounreying slowly from crime scene to crime scene, doggedly following the man he describes as “a ghost”. Much of this is sacrificed in the film to save running time, but it helps you identify with his quest. Two scenes in particular I would have loved to see: Bell’s war story, which fleshes out the character and explains his self-doubt, and the scene where Chigurh meets the man in charge and presents him with the money. The latter has a knowing, pessemistic quality, like the end of Season 2 of The Wire, which seems to say that the drug trade and attendant violence will never end because it is just too profitable.

In the end, the Coens have done both themselves and McCarthy proud in translating this unsettling, violent examination of America’s troubled history and dark urges to the big screen. With no neat ending and little justice on offer, this is not a typical thriller, but demands to be seen.

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