No Country for Old Men opens with an emotionally restrained voiceover from Tommy Lee Jones.
“I was sheriff of this county when I was twenty-five years old . . . Some of the old time sheriffs never even wore a gun. A lotta folks find that hard to believe . . . You can’t help but compare yourself against the oldtimers. Can’t help but wonder how they would have operated these times. There was this boy I sent to the ‘lectric chair at Huntsville here a while back . . . He killt a fourteen-year-old girl . . . Told me that he’d been planning to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember . . . Said he knew he was going to hell . . . I don’t know what to make of that. The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say, “Okay, I’ll be part of this world.”
The importance of this opening cannot be understated. Jones delivers his monologue with an extraordinary vocal precision, and it tells us all we need to know, setting up the entire film, which regards a completely evil man with wonderment, as if shocked that that such a creature could exist.
The man is Anton Chigurh, a tall, menacing man with greasy, black hair and a haunting smile, who travels through Texas with a tank of compressed air and a deadly cattle bolt gun. Chigurh is, perhaps, the cinematic villain of the decade, rivaled only by Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight (2008).
Chigurh is one strand in the distorted plot. Ed Tom Bell, the sheriff played by Jones, is another. The third is Llewelyn Moss, a retired welder who lives with his wife in a trailer, and one day, while hunting, stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong in the desert. Pickup trucks range in a circle like an old wagon train. Everyone on the scene is dead; they even shot the dog. The bed of one pickup houses as neat stack of heroine. Nearby, Llewelyn finds the money, two million in a briefcase. Chigurh wants this briefcase.
No Country for Old Men is as good a film as Joel and Ethan Coen have ever made. It feels impossible to pick one movie out of a filmography that includes The Big Lebowski, Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and many other incredible films, but No Country for Old Men is their magnum opus. It’s part thriller, part chase, but it’s essentially a character study, an examination of how its characters meet and deal with a man so bad, cruel and unfeeling that there is simply no comprehending him. It would be easy to simply classify him as a murderous psychopath, but he’s more complicated. “He has his principles,” says the bounty hunter, who has knowledge of him.
If Sheriff Bell’s opening monologue does not instantly grab you, then the memorable coin toss scene certainly will. Chigurh enters a rundown gas station in the middle of the desert and begins to play of game of words with the old man behind the cash register, who quickly becomes very nervous. It is clear they are discussing whether Chigurh will kill him. Chigurh has by no means made up his mind; in fact, it is not even up to him to decide this man’s fate. Without explaining why, he asks the man to call the flip of a coin. Listen to what they say, how they say it, how they imply the stakes. Listen to their timing. Dialogue has always been a specialty of the Coen brothers, but here it is beyond poetic, a true masterclass.
The money turns out to be easier to find than to keep. Moss runs from Chigurh, hiding in small hotels. Scenes are meticulously constructed in which each man knows the other is nearby. Moss can run but he can’t hide. Chigurh always finds him. He shadows him like his doom, never rushing, always moving at the same calculated pace, like a pursuer in a nightmare.
No Country for Old Men is a masterful symphony of time, place, character, moral decisions, immoral certainties, human nature, and fate. It is also, in the Oscar-nominated cinematography of Roger Deakins, the Oscar-nominated editing of the Coens, and the Oscar-nominated music by Carter Burwell (see a trend here?), startlingly beautiful, stark and lonely. The film demonstrates how pitiful ordinary human feelings are in the face of relentless injustice.
Many of the scenes in No Country for Old Men are so flawlessly built that you want them to continue, and yet they create an emotional suction drawing you to what happens next. Another movie that evokes similar feelings is the Coens’ Fargo (playing at the Byrd on February 21). To make one such film is a miracle. Here is another.
Come watch No Country for Old Men Sunday, February 18 at 4:30pm.