Eleven years after Fargo, the first film Joel and Ethan Coen should’ve been awarded an Oscar for, the Coen brothers finally took home the Academy’s top prize with No Country for Old Men. An old Hollywood adage surmises that directors never win Best Picture for their best work, but the Coen brothers certainly did.
Based on a Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, No Country for Old Men is set in West Texas during the early ‘80s. No Country follows three intersecting stories: that of Terrell County Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), and welder Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin). The film opens on Chigurh escaping from police custody and committing the first in a string of serial murders. Llewyn, hunting antelope in a remote area of the Texan desert, spots a ring of abandoned vehicles parked miles from civilization. Weapon lowered and ready to fire, he investigates.
Llewyn steps past a slew of corpses and one man clutching to life as it slips away before finding the remnants of a drug deal gone wrong. Sensing that there must be money to accompany the dead and the heroin, he searches out the deal’s lone survivor. Llewyn finds the last-man-standing and a case of money, and he retrieves the cash and heads home. At this point, Llewyn’s luck runs out, as he begins to run for his life with the cartel and Chigurh on his trail, and only Ed Tom to protect him.
No Country for Old Men is a lesson in moral philosophy wrapped in the fastest two hours in cinema. No Country is part thematic parable, part Western, and part cat-and-mouse game. The juxtaposition exists between a rule-abiding sheriff, a morally ambivalent blue-collar worker, and a hitman who is compared to the bubonic plague. Dissertations could be written about the basis of Chigurh’s worldview and his psychosis. A criticism, if the movie warrants one at all, is that Ed Tom is more sage caricature than living, breathing human; he exists as a postmodern interpretation of the archetypal Western genre sheriff.
Unsurprisingly, the Coen brothers were the perfect marriage for McCarthy—especially this McCarthy book—his cynicism, shrewd and resourceful characters, and, above all else, his nihilism. Ed Tom and Llewyn belong in the same class as Fargo’s Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), another detail-oriented character accustomed to being underestimated. Technically speaking, the film is a masterpiece. The score is rarely used, only intensifying the dread that accompanies Chigurh. Long-time Coen collaborator Roger Deakins shot the film, and it serves as a cinematographic clinic from the best to ever frame a film.
No Country for Old Men is chock full of career-defining performances. Bardem, who received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his effort, is haunting, death personified. It offers other top-of-the-resume roles for the likes of Brolin, Woody Harrelson, and Jones. No Country for Old Men is the type of film mentioned at the top of an obituary. Cast and crew alike are fortunate to share the distinction.