Joel and Ethan Coen often are accused of being nihilistic. They even included nihilists in one of their most popular movies, The Big Lebowski. It’s not really true across their filmography, but it very much is true of No Country for Old Men, which arrived in 2007, 15 years ago.
A lot of the Coens’ movies are dark, and a lot of them are violent. But none are as downright bleak as No Country for Old Men, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel from two years earlier. It was also the only Coens movie to win the Oscar for Best Picture.
The film is very much concerned with the idea of whether the world has gotten worse lately, or if it’s been bad all the time. It’s good to remember that this debate was also being had in 2007 (when the movie came out) and in 1980 (when it was set).
Set in 1980 in West Texas, the film has three protagonists, who end up having limited interaction with one another. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is the typically Coen-like character, a novice criminal in over his head. Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is an aging sheriff, beginning to doubt his place in the world. (Jones’ character, always a step behind the different murders, ultimately has little effect on the plot, but his inclusion is worth it for all the mournful monologues. And while another Coen crime film, Fargo, had a police investigator as the hero, Marge Gunderson at least solved the crime.
And Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is the film’s iconic, terrifying villain, a soft-spoken, mop-topped killing machine who makes the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse from Raising Arizona look like the Easter Bunny. He also sports an air gun, the sort of weapon used for killing cows, and one of movies’ best-ever novel weapons. Vulture named it the best movie weapon of 2007, beating out the machine gun leg from Planet Terror, the car from Death Proof, and Viggo Mortensen’s penis, from Eastern Promises.
Sure, the plot involves some money and a drug deal gone bad, but this movie is way more about character, performance, and an overall sense of dread than anything about the plot.
The Coens’ Legacy
The Coens worked with all of their usual collaborators, including composer Carter Burwell and cinematographer Roger Deakins, and while supporting actors like Stephen Root are in the film, neither Jones nor Bardem worked with the Coens before or after.
The film also makes some unconventional choices. Brolin’s character gets killed off-camera. Jones, once again, gets no scenes with either of his other co-stars, showing up only after Brolin is dead. And it ends very ambiguously.
No Country for Old Men, in the very competitive year of 2007, won four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Bardem, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
The Coens’ movies are ranked often, and No Country for Old Men usually lands near the top; I place it behind only Fargo, Inside Llewyn Davis, and A Serious Man, and just ahead of Hail Caesar, Miller’s Crossing, and The Big Lebowski.
No Country For Old Men is streaming on HBO Max.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.