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Thoughts about “No Country For Old Men”

Last night I saw the movie “No Country For Old Men”, the latest offering from the Coen Brothers, the guys who brought us “O Brother Where Art Thou,” “Fargo,” “The Big Lebowski” and other one of a kind movies. Being a big fan of the Coens, I’ve been waiting with great anticipation to see this, their newest film.

There’s been a lot of talk of “No Country For Old Men” being the best movie of the year, and I’ve heard a number of people even rank it as one of their favorite movies ever, so I couldn’t help but have high expectations – which can usually kill a movie for me. Not this one.

I don’t know if I like it as a story (the way I like “Shawshank Redemption” or even a Coen film like “O Brother Where Art Thou”) – I barely cared about any of the characters and the story is pretty dark and unredemptive. And yet, like the wide open spaces of the stark Texan landscape, I found a film I could get lost in. In the end, I think “No Country…” is less interested in telling a story as it is exploring what drives the characters to do what they do. As a story it’s not very satisfying, but as a study of human nature I found it completely engrossing.

Before I go much further, let me make clear that this movie is NOT for everyone. It’s violent, it’s dark, and there’s little redemption to be found. But it still feels true.

I’m not a movie critic, so I’m reluctant to go into great critical detail of the movie as a whole – plus there’s so much I could talk about it would be hard to know where to begin.

Take for instance the nuanced performances that were delicious to watch – every character pitch perfect and delivering rich dialogue at once gritty and romantic. I hung on every word. Josh Brolin’s performance is a revelation and Javier Bardem is a mesmerizing baddie. Tommy Lee Jones, the biggest star, is subtle and authentic. His performance is surprisingly fragile to me.

I could talk about the look of the film. Roger Deakins is my favorite cinematographer (yep, I’m one of those film geeks who cares about who the cinematographer is) and his work in this film is poetry for the eyes. The lonesome sweeping landscape of Texas and the way Deakins renders it makes it as much a character as anyone else.

Or I could talk about the music. Or lack of it. As far as I can recall, there was a little music at the very beginning and then no more until the credits rolled, leaving you to deal with a tension that builds throughout the film and finds no relief in the amplified quietness. There’s no music to tell you how to feel. You have to feel it for yourself.

I could go into great detail about any of those things, but what I’m most interested in sharing is what the movie is getting at. Or at least what I think part of it is getting at. Many people will take “No Country For Old Man” at face value as a linear story of a man on the run with $2,000,000 (that he found when he stumbled upon the grisly scene of a drug deal gone bad) and the villain who is chasing him. But the way it plays out would make it a very disappointing story (in fact, many have complained that they didn’t like the ending). In fact, that storyline wraps up about three quarters in, leaving that last quarter of the movie to make us wonder what the story is really about.

I was talking with some friends afterward and we think that the film is about, at least in part, the root of all evil: money. Everywhere money shows up, trouble is hot on it’s heels. This is most obvious in the storyline of Llewelyn Moss (Brolin), the character on the run with the money he recovered from the Texas desert, but it also plays out in more subtle ways throughout. I’m thinking of the villain Anton Chigurh (Bardem) who decides whether or not he will kill someone by the flip of a coin. Those who he is about to kill always tell him, “you don’t have to do this…”, and in a climactic scene towards the end you get the sense almost that he doesn’t necessarily want to kill a certain character, and so he tells them to call the coin: heads or tails. The character refuses to call it, saying that the coin doesn’t make the decision, he does.

“You cannot love both God and money,” Jesus says. “You’ll end up hating one and loving the other.” I believe that money is the most seductive idol, a god with a stranglehold on most of us and who demands to call all the shots in our lives.  If God moves on our hearts to do something or to give, how often do we consult our checkbooks first? Money wants to be lord over us, and wants our worship.

In Chigurh we have a character who lets a coin, a piece of money, tell him whether he will kill or grant a stay of execution.

How many of us let money determine whether we live or die, whether we live out of the reality of the abundant life or whether we live in the smothering death grip of the fear that “maybe God can’t be trusted to meet my needs”?

In an even subtler scene at the end of the film, a couple of kids on their bike come upon Chigurh. He’s hurt and gives a kid $100 for his shirt so he can make a sling for his arm. As he walks away, we hear the two kids begin to argue over the money. And so the cycle continues, as though money were possessed. I think it’s truer to say that money wants to possess us.

I’m not entirely sure if that’s what the Coens intended to get at, but I think it’s in there. But regardless of whether it is or isn’t, or whether you find anything at all worthwhile in this film, the Coen brothers are two of the most singular and original moviemakers out there and they are at the top of their game. “No Country For Old Men” is one of the most well crafted movies you’re likely to see in a long time – whether you like it or not.


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