30 Years of Coens: No Country for Old Men
A triumph of immaculate execution, and their best film
In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Coen brothers' debut, Blood Simple, I’m re-watching their 16 feature films and attempting to jot down observations on one per day, in order of their release. For a fuller explanation of what I’m doing and why, see my first entry, on Blood Simple. (Here, too, are my entries on Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Intolerable Cruelty, and The Ladykillers. The landing page for the whole series is here.)
Notes on No Country for Old Men (2007)
• After the flop of The Hudsucker Proxy, the Coen brothers came back with Fargo. After the far greater flop of The Ladykillers, they gave us No Country for Old Men. Given the historical pattern, I think it only makes sense for patient fans of the Coens to root for them to stumble now and then, in order that we might savor their rebounds. I wrote a moderately rapturous review of No Country for Old Men when it came out, and rather than repeat myself, I’ll recommend it as a starting point—it’s here—and try something a little bit different with this entry. But first, two observations, one broad and one narrow.
• Although I think No Country is among the most thematically rich of the Coens’ film—owing in large part to the source material, Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name—what truly sets it apart is its technical virtuosity. The Coens always excel in this area, but in this case they elevate execution to an art form. There are films that I think are better, but few that come so near to perfection. This is true across the board (Roger Deakins’s cinematography is, again, extraordinary), but nowhere is it more evident than in the movie’s sound design. There is almost no music in the film (and when there is, it’s little more than an ambient throb), and there are long stretches devoid of dialogue. This is a tremendous challenge both to mood and exposition, and sound men Skip Lievsay and Craig Berkey could scarcely have brought it off more brilliantly: the rustle of the dry wind, the sound of bullets piercing glass, the scrape of a briefcase along an air shaft—these make up what may be the most remarkable soundtrack of the Coens’ career. I can only imagine that this austere vision resembles the Coens’ plan for adapting James Dickey’s To the White Sea, which makes it all the sadder that said adaptation will probably never be made.
• A small point, but one that’s nonetheless bothered me. At least a couple of critics of the film—I am thinking specifically of the New Yorker’s David Denby and The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday—seem unduly fixated on Anton Chigurh’s cattle gun, which he employs to dispatch a hapless motorist early in the film. Denby cited the scene twice in his modest case against the Coens, implying that it is one of a series of absurd cattle-gun murders by Chigurh. Hornaday went further, in a ranking of Coens films in which she placed No Country next to last:
A technically perfect movie in which the Coens deploy every cinematic element at their disposal—writing, cinematography, editing, sound, performances—with the virtuosity of artists at the height of their powers. All to follow around a serial killer blowing people away with a cattle stun gun. Sorry, not worth it.
I feel obligated to point out that of the dozen or more people Chigurh kills over the course of the film, exactly one is murdered with the cattle gun (the same number as is murdered with handcuffs). The extensive remainder are killed more conventionally with firearms. Indeed, it’s made abundantly clear that Chigurh carries the cattle gun to punch out locks—he does this on at least five occasions—rather than foreheads. Again, it’s a small point. But if one is going to dismiss a “technically perfect” movie on such grounds, accuracy is merited.
• In any case, having already written a conventional review—and in recognition of the fact that much of the pleasure of No Country for Old Men resides in its accumulation of immaculate moments—I thought that this time around I would offer a kind of viewer’s diary. (Think of it as the inverse of my spoilereview of Luc Besson’s awful Lucy.) The list will not, of course, be comprehensive—I’m holding myself to 30 entries—and readers are invited to cite their own treasured sequences in the comments section. Here goes:
- The stark, arid, physical landscape, accompanied by the voiceover of an older man charting the moral landscape: Tommy Lee Jones’s introduction may be more benign than that of M. Emmet Walsh in Blood Simple, but it’s hardly more optimistic. And is it just me, or does that windmill recall Once Upon a Time in the West?
- The deputy who picked up Chigurh is on the phone, leaning back in his chair, oblivious to what’s behind him. “I got it under control,” he says. He emphatically does not. Of all the visuals in the entire film, the one that sticks with me most is the fireworks display of scuff marks that his dying boot-kicks spread across the floor. Stunning.
- The cattle-gun scene. What has always struck me is the way the Coens use it to set up the first instance of “twinning” between the three principal characters. Chigurh tells the doomed motorist, “Would you hold still please, sir?” and just moments later …
- Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), another hunter sizing up his prey, tells a desert pronghorn, “You hold still.” The extended sequence that follows is among my favorite stretches of the movie: the blood track, the wounded pitbull, the whip of wind and crunch of earth, the bloody scene of the shoutout, the “ultimo hombre” (his vertical boot tips mirroring the two trees above), Llewelyn’s patient wait, and his ultimate “Yeah” as he takes the money. Absolutely masterful. Less well known than Jones or Bardem, Brolin didn’t get nearly enough credit for his tremendous performance, conducted to such a great extent without the safety net of dialogue.
- Back at the trailer, I love the interplay between Llewelyn and his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald). “What’s in the satchel?” “It’s full of money.” “That’ll be the day.” Despite their limited screen time together, I find them among the most relatable couples in all the Coens’ films—possibly second only to Marge and Norm Gunderson in Fargo.
- Llewelyn: “I’m fixin’ to do something dumber than hell, but I’m going anyways.” This could be the tagline for half the movies ever made.
- One truck silhouetted against the night sky, then two. (Another favorite shot.) As the Mexicans start shooting, Llewelyn loses his hat—a nod to Tom Reagan? This sequence always has me at the edge of my seat: the storm flickering on the horizon, the bootless plunge into the river, the dog (!). I don’t know how it is that being chased by a paddling pitbull could come across as anything other than ridiculous, but this is one of the tensest scenes in the film. Better dry out that gun chamber quick, Llewelyn …
- Chigurh at the gas station, buying a candy bar for 69 cents (the same amount for which the Dude wrote a backdated check in Lebowski.) I can see why some people consider this scene overly stylized. But I find it riveting, and never more so than as the candy wrapper slowly uncrinkles.
- Things not to say to Anton Chigurh if you’d like to live to see tomorrow: 1) “Mind riding bitch?” 2) Pretty much anything else.
- Headed for the crime scene, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Jones) is cautioned by his wife, Loretta (Tess Harper): “Be careful.” He replies, “Always am.” In a worse film, it would be Ed Tom—a few weeks from retirement!—who would not make it to the final reel.
- The sheriff, the deputy, the murder site—the echoes of Fargo are hard to miss, but the scene doesn’t for a moment play like a Coenesque inside joke.
- Another favorite visual: The lock-shaped indentation in the wood-paneling of Llewelyn’s trailer after Chigurh comes to pay a visit. More twinning: moments after Chigurh has left, Sheriff Ed Tom sits in the same spot on the sofa, drinking the same milk, and seen in reflection on the same television screen.
- Llewelyn’s scene at the Regal Motel is another triumph of sound design: Unscrewing the grate, cutting the blind-cord, snapping open the case, sliding it into the air shaft. One day, I will watch this movie with my eyes closed.
- Boots: Llewelyn buys a pair of Larry Mahans to replace the ones he took off to go swimming in the river. Later, as he and Chigurh converge on the Mexicans in the motel, Chigurh takes off his boots to move in quietly. After killing the Mexicans, Chigurh removes his bloody socks. As will gradually become apparent, this movie is as concerned with footwear as Miller’s Crossing was with haberdashery.
- Yet another favorite visual: The scratch marks from the case that Chigurh finds in the air shaft.
- I confess to slightly mixed feelings regarding Woody Harrelson as Carson Wells. He’s grown on me, though, right up until his final scene.
- Llewelyn talking to himself at the Eagle Hotel: “There just ain’t no way.” He finds the transponder just as a door creaks open downstairs. What follows is one of the most remarkable exercises in sustained tension in recent film history: the unanswered phone, the footsteps in the hall, the ping of the receiver, the squeak of a lightbulb being unscrewed …
- Llewelyn commandeers a truck, à la Hi in Raising Arizona, but with lethal consequences for the driver. The bullet holes subsequently peppering the windshield are terrifying, but Llewelyn finally, if briefly, turns the tables on Chigurh. It’s not Leo O’Bannon tommygunning away to the strains of Danny Boy, but it’ll do.
- Crossing the bridge into Mexico, Llewelyn buys a jacket from a young guy for $500. “Gimme that beer, too,” he tells the guy’s friend. “How much?” “Ryan, give him the beer.” When Llewelyn throws up, it’s the return of an early-Coens trope we haven’t seen since The Hudsucker Proxy.
- I don’t think I’ve parked directly in front of a pharmacy since watching Chigurh’s rag-in-the-gas-tank scene. When he gets back to his room with his painkillers and antibiotics, we watch, again, as he carefully removes his boots pre-surgery.
- Harrelson’s scene with Brolin in the Mexican hospital is his best of the film: “Call me when you’ve had enough.”
- My problem with Harrelson is in his next, and final, scene. How did the swinging dick who was so confident vis a vis Chigurh lose their confrontation so quickly and decisively? The instant he’s ambushed on the stairs, he deflates completely.
- Boots yet again: In one of the most wicked shots of the film, Chigurh, on the phone with Llewelyn, sees Wells’s blood creeping across the floor toward his feet and nonchalantly lifts them up to prop them on the bed. (This sets up an even subtler moment later on.)
- Llewelyn, to the girl with beer at the El Paso motel: “Just looking for what’s coming.” “Yeah, but no one ever sees that.” How true: We viewers won’t see what’s coming until after it’s already gone.
- There are those (again, including Denby) who contend that Llewelyn’s offscreen demise—however true to the book—is nonetheless callous on the part of the Coens. I’m not sure how granting him a death scene would have been evidence of sympathy: There’s a certain generosity to his end going unwitnessed. And however discomfiting it may be to viewers, it is wholly of a piece with the film.
- Yet another tremendous shot: The golden light gleaming through the blown-out lock when Sheriff Ed Tom returns to the scene of the crime. It can’t be a coincidence that it so powerfully recalls the bullet-hole shafts of light from the final scene of Blood Simple.
- Maurice! (Sorry: the flashback of an old Northern Exposure fan.) As Uncle Ellis, Barry Corbin explains, “What you got ain’t nothing new…. You can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.”
- Chigurh and Carla Jean: “The coin don’t have no say. It’s just you.” “I got here the same way the coin did.” How do we know what happens next (again offscreen)? Because Chigurh stops to check the soles of his boots on his way out.
- Chigurh, T-boned by another car, buys a shirt off a passing kid—a final twinning with Llewelyn’s purchase of the jacket on the border. The kid’s friend, seeking payment of his own (“You know part of that’s mine”), reinforces the echo.
- Ed Tom, now retired, talks with Loretta over breakfast. Is there still a place for him? He’s admitted that he’s no longer up to the job of trying to prevent evil’s encroachment; she doesn’t much want his help around the house. Remembering dreams, he notes that his father died 20 years younger than he is now—not unlike the prematurely departed Llewelyn Moss. The movie’s title whispers quietly in the background. (Again, for further thoughts, you can find my initial review here.)
Where I rank No Country for Old Men among Coens films: #1 (out of 16)
Where I rank its borderline music-free score among borderline music-free Carter Burwell scores: #1 (out of 1)
Best line: “Baby, things happen. I can’t take ‘em back.”
Best visual: Black boot scuffs on a white floor
Best sound: The unscrewing of a light bulb
Notable locales: Texas
Notable Influences: Cormac McCarthy, Sam Peckinpah, Alfred Hitchcock
Dream sequence(s): No, although dreams are recounted
Important scene(s) set in a bathroom: Yes
Deranged hair: Yes (Chigurh)
Car T-boned: Yes (Chigurh’s)
Number of characters who vomit: One (Llewelyn)
Next up: Burn After Reading