By 2007 the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, had directed some of the most recognizable and enduring films of the previous two decades. Films like Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo, The Big Lebowski among others demonstrated a penchant for dark comedy, snappy and witty dialogue, sometimes graphic violence, and tension-filled storytelling. In No Country for Old Men, the 2007 winner for Best Picture, the Coen brothers combined all of these elements to produce one of their most intense features.
No Country for Old Men is an amazing movie until the third act, which is where it starts to lose me. This would undoubtedly be the Coen brothers’ best film, had the third act even been competent. As it was, everything just kind of stopped. We don’t see any of the action that brings the story to a resolution and we’re kind of left wondering what’s going on. I suppose that’s what the characters were feeling, especially Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) and his friend Ellis (Barry Corbin) and the El Paso Sheriff. They all lament how the modern world is changing in ways that they don’t understand, and the violence that seems to be accompanying it is something they cannot comprehend. In many ways, this is a pessimistic film that has a pessimistic ending.
One of the thematic elements to this film is the choices that we make, and how sometimes we make the right choices that can save our lives and other times we make the wrong choices that end up destroying us. On the opposite end of that however, the Cohen brothers are also telling us that even when we make the right choice, chance has a lot to do with it.
The example of this is after we’ve met Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem in his Best Supporting Actor Oscar winning performance). Chigurh is a professional killer who uses an air compressor and a hose to shoot people with the same lethality as a gunshot, but without the evidence of a bullet or shell casing. We’ve already seen him gleefully kill a sheriff’s deputy and coldly murder a random motorist so that he could steal his car. Now at a filling station he torments the station’s owner nearly to the point of cracking. He asks the owner what is the most he’s ever won in a coin flip and then flips a coin and tells him to call it. The owner wants to know what he’s calling for and Chigurh tells him that he’s calling for everything. The owner calls heads, and it is heads. Chigurh then gives him the coin and tells him not to put it in his pocket because then it will just become another coin, which he says it is.
We also see how making the right choice can be what starts you on the road to ruin when Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is overcome by guilt. The whole story gets moving when Llewelyn is hunting and tracking a deer he’s shot and come across the remains of several dead Mexicans who were all shot in an apparent drug deal that went very bad. Llewelyn finds one survivor who asks him for water, but he has none to give him. Llewelyn then tracks the last man standing and finds his corpse a few miles away under a tree and next to a case with $2 million in it. Taking the case for himself, Llewelyn goes home to his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), but won’t tell her where he’s been or what he’s been doing. Unable to sleep that night, he fills a jug with water and goes back to the scene, but the man is already dead. He then sees another truck pull up where he parked his truck in the distance. They men puncture his tires and chase after him, managing to shoot Llewelyn in the shoulder. He’s only able to escape by jumping into a river and shooting the pit bull that they’d sicked on him.
That night Chigurh arrives at the scene with a couple of guys in suits who tell him that the case is still missing, but it has a transponder in it and they give him the tracking device he can use to find it, and then Chigurh picks up a pistol from the ground and shoots both of them. Meanwhile, Llewelyn gets home and tells Carla Jean that they’re now retired and she should go to her mother’s house while he waits for the heat to die down.
What follows is a tension-filled second act that had me on the edge of my seat nearly the whole time. One thing that you’ll notice as you watch this film is that there is absolutely no score throughout. There is occasionally music playing off of a radio in the scene, but otherwise there is no score at all, and there are times where the silence makes the scene much more intense than if there was this massive orchestration playing underneath it.
Also, Roger Deakins’ cinematography is second to none. Deakins has been the Coen brothers’ go to director of photography for all of their films, and he is an expert at using light and shadow to compliment and help tell the story. An example of that is when Llewelyn is in the hotel room waiting for Chigurh to arrive. Sitting on his bed with his gun pointing at the door, he looks down to the crack between the bottom of the door and the floor. We see the strip of light and then we see the shadows of two feet appear. After a moment the shadows disappear as the feet walk away. Then after another moment, the light goes out on the other side of the door, signaling that Chigurh has turned off the light. The tension is finally broken by Chigurh firing his weapon through the door and Llewelyn firing back his shotgun with a gun fight and chase ensuing. What I love about this scene is that it’s all told visually. The tension is built through the visuals, and specifically with light. Visually speaking this is as simple a scene to construct as you can imagine. It almost might as well be in black and white, and it harkens back to the height of film noir. It shows that a director of photography or a cinematographer doesn’t need a sweeping panoramic landscape to create a dramatic scene. All he or she needs is a little bit of light and the knowledge and talent to know how to use it effectively, and Deakins and the Coen brothers know how to do that. They allow us as the audience to watch what is going on without the scene being cluttered up by a bunch of dialogue.
This is another strong suit for No Country for Old Men, and that is the paucity of dialogue. This is strictly a guess, but I’d be willing to bet that there’s less dialogue in this film than any other Coen brothers film, and there’s certainly less dialogue than most best picture winners. We are shown this story, we are not told this story. Almost every major story point happens visually, with only the most important exposition given through dialogue. Throughout the first 20 minutes of the film, there’s hardly any dialogue at all, other than some random banter by the deputy sheriff and Chigurh’s menacing threatening of the gas station owner. In fact, a good portion of Chigurh’s dialogue isn’t really saying anything. He’s talking, but he’s talking in a way that reveals character and his psyche more than moving the story forward. Also, as we see Llewelyn approach the area of the doomed drug deal, there’s no one around for him to talk to. He mutters a couple of things under his breath and tries to get information out of the lone survivor, but other than that, we see all of the information that we need to know about how this story is going to go moving forward.
If you’re a screenwriter trying to figure out how to tell important parts of the story without resorting to dialogue, then this is a film that you should reference.
Unfortunately it’s not all good for this film. I don’t know exactly what the deal is, but it sure seems like the Coen brothers weren’t quite sure how they wanted to end the film, and it kind of goes off the rails in the third act. In the interest of not giving away any spoilers, I’ll just point out that it feels very rushed, and there are very important moments in the third act that we don’t see. Those moments are implied, and it’s clear that they did happen, but these are the moments that we’ve been watching the whole film for, and it’s terribly unsatisfying to not be shown the climax. To me it felt like the Coen brothers knew how they wanted the story to be resolved, but they couldn’t realistically get there, so they just kind of made it happen in way that made it necessary for us not to see it. Then, it’s just implied that it happened, but it makes me feel cheated. We’ve been following Llewelyn for the last hour and a half, and we ought to be able to see how his story is resolved.
The other problem that this created was that it left us with 30 minutes of tying up loose ends that really didn’t feel like they had any bearing on the story anymore. The story was over, and yet we still had nearly 30 minutes of movie where again, nothing more was really resolved and everything just kind of stopped. In fact, the last scene of the movie is like that. It doesn’t really end. It just stops.
It’s those last 30 minutes for me that keep this film out of the upper echelon of the Coen brothers’ filmography, even though it’s their only film to win Best Picture. The first two acts are breathlessly paced and the tension throughout is palpable. Then, when it should be reaching its crescendo, it just kind of slowly fades out. There is no climax that we’re allowed to see. There is no resolution that allows us to sympathize with the main character on some emotional level, because we aren’t allowed to see what happened. A great film is nearly ruined by an unspectacular ending.
Did the Academy get it right?
I don’t necessarily think that they got it wrong, but it is not the film that I would have voted for. I must also say that with one exception, we got a lot of depressing, pessimistic movies nominated this year. Atonement is a fine film with Kiera Knightley about a young girl who accuses her sister’s lover of a crime he didn’t commit with World War II in England as a backdrop. It’s a dramatic film made of a series of misunderstandings and misinterpretations with tragic results. It’s good but a real downer. Juno tackled the hilarious issue of teen pregnancy and was the breakout role for Ellen Page. It’s the token indie nomination for 2007, but it’s actually a heartwarming, feel-good film that is witty and super entertaining, but lacks the gravitas of Best Picture. Michael Clayton is another fine film starring George Clooney as a “fixer” who is hired by a law firm to do damage control when one of their lawyers goes off the rails and reveals that the chemical company he’s been representing in a class-action law suit is guilty. It’s actually a riveting film that keeps you guessing about who Michael can trust and who is really out to get him. It’s hard to articulate, but this is basically an excellent film that was just missing that little something extra that could have put it over the top. The film that would have likely received my vote for 2007, however, was There Will Be Blood, which is a bit ironic because it has a lot of the same issues that No Country for Old Men has. It’s a totally different movie and I think that director Paul Thomas Anderson was channeling his inner Stanley Kubrick during the making of it. It’s a deliberately paced drama starring Daniel Day-Lewis as an oil man who puts the finding of oil ahead of everything else in his life, and it eventually costs him his humanity. It’s another dramatic film, but like No Country, it loses a lot of its effectiveness with a lackluster ending, despite the fact that the ending has one of the great movie lines of the decade in “I drink your milkshake!” The ending of There Will Be Blood is much more intense than No Country for Old Men, but it still leaves much unresolved, and leaves a sense of wanting. Similarly to No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood stops more than it ends. But No Country for Old Men was the winner and for the first two thirds of it, I would have agreed, but the last act dropped it down in my opinion, and almost ruined what should have been an exceptional film.