Arguably the Coen brother’s most straightforward film, with the possible exception of Blood Simple, No Country For Old Men is also arguably their masterpiece. It may not be the definitive Coen Brother’s film but it is one of the definitive modern Westerns, carried by some truly spectacular acting and visuals that capture the frontier like few others. The narrative builds on the subversion of traditional Western values that are central to the film and its source. Brolin, a rancher who stumbles across drug money, and Tommy Lee Jones, an ageing sheriff struggling to comprehend a new threat, are pitted against a killer devoid of any kind of moral code, there’s not even honour among thieves here, he simply kills with brutal efficiency, a foreign entity leaving a trail of death. This is less about how the West was won and more how it was lost, the old guard rendered powerless against Bardem’s character, who is repeatedly referred to as a ‘ghost’ in the film.
|Truly terrifying. The hair that is.|
Adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, the films bears all the hallmarks of his work. Desolate, sparse, barren and with an almost nihilistic sense of doom that pervades every aspect, crafting a truly foreboding atmosphere. Naturally the film’s source means that dialogue is something of a rarity by industry standards. McCarthy’s dialogue has always been understated and with a simplicity that belies its complexity and symbolism; such is the Coen Brother’s translation. Tommy Lee Jones’ opening speech, delivered with a thick, laconic drawl and with a measured sense of timing that reflects the wealth of experience he brings, is taken almost verbatim from the novel.
Nonetheless it sets the tone for the film; tired, desperate and overwrought in the face of the relentlessness of fate and an uncaring world, particularly one like the New Mexico setting, a modern-day frontier awash with remnants of the supposedly legendary past. The dialogue is minimalist but, like so much of the film, speaks volumes. Scenes such as the encounter between Javier Bardem’s unstoppable, inhuman killer Chigurrh and a gas station attendant are masterful displays in how often what isn’t said is the most profound, he questions how much the man has ever lost in a coin toss and tells him that the winnings are ‘everything’. The tension and suspense is truly captivating and is a recurrent theme in the film, the pace is sometimes almost languorous but it is perfectly measured, eking out every inch of suspense and pulling the viewer in to their twisted tale.
This tension and suspense is projected in every aspect and they work in perfect harmony to craft a thriller of Hitchcockian standards. The almost complete absence of any form of soundtrack, digetic or not, serves to amplify the stellar sound design; from the suffocating silence of the hunt to the dull, metallic thud of Chigurrh’s signature bolt gun, a sound becomes quickly associated with horror and violence, the calling card of Bardem’s cold, calculating embodiment of death. The violence he deals out is brutal and uncompromising, the Coen Brother’s may have drawn from the work of Peckinpah but they present their often bloody vision with none of his stylistic quirks. There’s no slow-motion, no theatrics, just pure, uncompromising realism, a visceral vision captured with understated mastery.
A true modern classic and a stunning re-imagining of the Western form, right to the deliberately anti-climactic, ambiguous end, one last challenge to convention.