The film No Country for Old Men opens to sweeping landscape shots of barren Texan land, virtually untouched by humans. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) provides a wise and weary voice over, slowly talking about his legacy as a man of the law. Seemingly meaningless on first viewing, his monologue recalls generations of sheriffs that didn’t even need guns to keep the peace. “Can’t help but wonder how they would’ve operated these times,” Bell continues, baffled by a boy he put away who killed a teenage girl without reason.
He’s equally as disillusioned about the carnage he finds bullet-riddled in the once pure country dirt.
Bell is following the bloody trail in the wake of a merciless hitman, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Chigurh is the embodiment of death, a modern day Grim Reaper who mutters prophetic lines and kills without remorse. He’s easily the creepiest, deadliest villain of the year. When told Chigurh is dangerous, another character familiar with his ruthless violence (Woody Harrelson), says, “Compared to what? The bubonic plague?”
The Coen brothers bring their dark sense of humor and recognizable visual style to an adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel, which will garner Academy respect for the screenplay at the very least. With the help of cinematographer and fellow Oscar shoe-in Roger Deakins, they create one of the most beautifully shot films of the year.
The story seems to follow Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) after he stumbles on $2 million in a drug deal gone very bad. This discovery puts him in the sights of a long list of men, including Chigurh, who track this hunter across the state, leaving bodies behind. What unfolds is a chase with riveting suspense, bloody action, and even a few cruel laughs, all contributing to the Coens’ best film.
But at one point, the movie consciously shifts protagonists to focus again on Sheriff Bell, swinging the plot back to the opening monologue. In one pivotal moment he stands literally and figuratively at the threshold he spoke about before.
“I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. You can say it’s my job to fight it but I don’t know what it is anymore.”
It’s this scene that determines the rest of the movie and hints at the bleak title. It also sets up an ending that will confuse, frustrate, and challenge audiences. And for that I applaud the Coens’ audacity.
It also takes a certain amount of courage to release a film without a soundtrack. From start to finish there isn’t a single song played, not even an indigenous fiddle or guitar. But the lack of music simply sharpens the subtle sounds that do exist, from the growing beeps to the steady clomping of boots, that each build the tension perfectly.
It’s just the sort of thing that will infuriate the average audience. The irony is my neighbors (real Texans) will hate this movie as much as they don’t understand it.