No Country for Old Men


People keep saying that No Country for Old Men is about the moral decline of society. The back of my copy of Cormac McCarthy’s novel says it has “a deep sorrow about the moral degredation of the legendary american west”. A Reuters article published on ABC News, Australia calls it “a tale of moral decline wrapped in a gritty crime drama”. Now, I understand it must be tricky wrapping up a reasonably peculiar film like this into a sentence, and I understand that the film certainly discusses issues of morality, but these quotes keep making it sound like the cinematic equivalent of your grandfather sitting on his soap box and telling you how morality is in decline, and complaining about your loud music.

And it isn’t, I don’t think. It concerns fear, and morality, and greed, and instinct. But it doesn’t do anything so dull as to go around saying things were better in the good old days.

The plot is a simple one; Llewelyn Moss (played by the sympathetic Josh Brolin) finds some money that doesn’t belong to him, and decides to keep it. No-good types come after him to get it back, including Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a particularly disturbing individual. Playing catch-up as this goes on is the steadfast Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones being generally awesome), who has the smarts to follow their trail, but is lacking in inclination.

Anton Chigurh is probably the finest cinema villain since Hannibal Lecter. There’s a three-pronged terror attached to him; scary hair, scary gas bottle, and scary disinterest. While you might expect to find disinterest dull, I’m developing a theory that it’s actually wonderfully tense to have your villain appear bored with things; it means you can’t be sure when they’ll actually act.

Llewelyn Moss and Sheriff Bell lack Chigurh’s unwavering certainty on life and their place in it. It makes them better people most likely, but far less likely to come out best against such a force of nature. Chigurh’s certainty on the universe existing only as he sees it is painted clearly in several scenes; he seems often like the ultimate objectivist. Only once does a character seriously challenge him on this count, and it’s a beautiful moment.1

A particularly striking feature of the movie — though one you might not even think about on first viewing — is the general lack of music.2 In its place is some intense use of sound to tell the story. Of particular note are the first two encounters between Chigurh and Llewelyn, where much of the drama is carried entirely through off-camera noises. It’s not only an interesting style, but I found it more immersive than any visual.

So; there’s an amoral, terrifying killer on the loose in the old west, and an adorable Sheriff who’s afraid to enter his disturbing world. Clearly, things like this wouldn’t have happened in the good old days? Happily, I don’t think the story is that simple. While the film opens with an engrossing soliloquy on the subject of the old-timers and Bell’s inability to understand some of the horrors he comes across in his job these days, later scenes recall the bloody history of the country.

In places, No Country for Old Men reminds me of Zodiac — it’s a film which continually confounds the expectations and conventions any seasoned audience expects. However, this confusion isn’t alienating by any means. Rather, No Country‘s peculiar pacing and unexpected developments keep you completely involved in its intriguing and somewhat tragic world.

  1. Interestingly, that moment isn’t quite the same in the novel. I picked the book up the other day, though sadly it has the movie poster as the cover. I dislike having a book so inextricably linked to a film, but at least it doesn’t say “NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE!” in gaudy lettering.
  2. Well, I didn’t notice, at any rate, until I read about it. At which point I felt very silly for not noticing.
Whatcha got ain\'t nothin\' new. This country\'s hard on people, you can\'t stop what\'s coming. It ain\'t all waiting on you. — Ellis

One Response to “No Country for Old Men”

  1. I like this review Tom. And your website is awesome. Maggie