From the Archive — No Country for Old Men

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It’s easy to forget now, but shortly before the release of No Country for Old Men, it appeared that Joel and Ethan Coen might have reached the end of their run as vital filmmakers. They’d delivered two critical and commercial duds in a row (Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers), and the ideas didn’t seem to snapping with the same frequency as early in their career. It turns out all the fretting was premature. The siblings crafted what might well stand as the best film they ever made and launched a string of consistently superlative features. As their latest feature (repurposed from a planned Netflix series) hits theaters ahead of broader streaming availability, I’ll dig out my original review of No Country for Old Men, written for and first posted at my former online home. 

No Country For Old Men is unmistakably a movie about Texas, or at least steeped in Texas, just as Fargo was fraught with the chill of Minnesota winter and the chipper attitudes of those who persevere through it. It may not be a Texas of reality (though it all feels as real as bullet piercing skin) and it’s certainly not a Texas of myth and fable. It’s a Texas of literature, the weight of decisions made and repercussions faced.

It comes from literature, of course. Joel and Ethan Coen have made many movies that felt like novels in their structure and detail, but this is the first time they’ve actually looked to a book for a story to tell. It’s not hard to understand why this Cormac McCarthy book would appeal to them. Every riveting page had to make them think of their lean, sharp debut Blood Simple. They have certainly transferred it to the screen with the care of zealots adapting their scripture of choice.

Like many films from the Coens, it is a movie about crime and a pile of money with a shadow of darkness cast across. It is stark, unrelenting, a Texas landscape. Men talk to each other about the horrors they’ve seen, the rot they can’t quite avoid. The rot they can’t quite resist. They survey the problems, the mounting inevitability. They are matter of fact. They see the world as a series of truths, even if those truths are unkind. Their words are curt and weary. The world is harsh, brutal, merciless, unrelenting. The film, with intelligence and confidence, conveys it all.

The casting is perfectly, exquisitely right. Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem all bring a fire-blasted authenticity to their major roles. The care in this aspect is so thorough that all the smaller roles are uniquely well-realized. They may have less screen time, but character actors like Stephen Root, Garret Dillahunt and Barry Corbin make major impressions. Their deft work is very much a part of the fabric of the film’s accomplishment. In a film unforgivably about hard men, Kelly Macdonald finds the grace in the patient, tired logic of her character, the only one to challenge the fervent inhumanity she sees before her.

Cataloging the achievements here can exhaust the supply of celebratory words, but too many words feels like an inappropriate tribute. These most verbal of filmmakers, champions of dense, precise language, make more with less this time around and a similar discipline should be undertaken in response, especially since all these cluttered terminology can be effectively replaced by a one-word review.

Masterpiece.