Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Young Ones Fare Badly, Too

Film: No Country for Old Men
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

There are, generally speaking, two opinions on No Country for Old Men. Some people (including me) will tell you that it’s the best thing the Coen Brothers have ever done. Others—many, many others—will tell you that the film is great until the last couple of minutes. What this means is that we’ll be getting to spoilers here eventually, because this is an ending that needs defending.

This film is the story of three men, none of whom appear on the screen at the same time. First we have Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin). Out hunting one day, he stumbles across a drug deal gone very wrong. Following the trail of the one man to walk out of the gunfight alive, he discovers a dead body and a satchel containing $2 million. Naturally he takes this home, but returns to the scene that night to see about a man still at the scene who was dying, but not yet dead. He’s discovered there by a pair involved with the trade, and he flees, returning home for the satchel. He also sends his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) to her mother’s house to keep her safe.

We also meet the man who will spend most of the film pursuing Moss and the money: Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Chigurh is a hit man who has been hired to recover the money, and he is perhaps the most ruthless man ever portrayed in a film. Our first view of him is strangling a deputy with his handcuffs. He then steals a police car, pulls someone over, and kills him with a captive bolt pistol (usually used to slaughter livestock) and takes his car.

Our third character is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). He is a man who has aged into his job as sheriff, and comes from a line of lawmen in the region. He fills this role as sheriff of this expanse of Texas with a sort of resigned dignity, knowing that there will be violence that he must see to, and understanding it less and less every day.

Sheriff Ed Tom is on screen less than the other main characters, but it is he who stands at the heart of the film. He is the moral center of the action as well as the character we are most likely to attach to as the protagonist. In the role, Jones carries the weight of the area on his soul. This is a man broken down by what he has seen and knowing what he will see in the future, a man who can only react to the increasing horror of his work by strapping on his sidearm and continuing to walk forward into whatever the situation throws at him.

All of the performances are notable ones. Javier Bardem comes across as one of the purest incarnations of evil ever filmed. Chigurh has a particular code that he lives by. He is a ruthless killer, someone who destroys everything he sees simply because it might see him, but there is evident a twisted moral ethic by which he works. He kills with no pleasure in general (although there certainly seems to be some pleasure at the start), but rather with a sort of satisfaction in doing a particular job well.

As the story unfolds, Chigurh tracks Moss across Texas, following him by means of a transponder hidden in the money satchel. Moss demonstrates his own particular cunning, renting back-to-back rooms at a motel and shifting the money satchel through the air vent to keep it out of Chigurh’s hands. Along the way, we encounter Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), sent to track down both the money and Anton Chigurh. Like Chigurh, Wells is ruthless and dedicated to his craft, but it’s also evident that he lacks the completely cold-blooded nature of Chigurh.

So let’s talk about that ending, shall we?


For many people the end of the film is a dud because there is no confrontation with Chigurh. At the end of the film, Chigurh is in a serious car accident, but he walks away, heading toward his next assignment. Moss is killed by Chigurh, and Ed Tom Bell retires.

So why is this such a great ending? Because it’s all about the opening narration from Ed Tom Bell. He tells us in the first few moments of the film that he is losing his ability to understand what is happening around him. He’s willing to die for the job if it becomes necessary, but as he tells us at the start, he doesn’t want to take his life into his own hands when he no longer understands the terms of the bet.

And so, the end, with no confrontation and Sheriff Bell’s retirement, we get the ending this film needs. Sheriff Bell no longer has a handle on the nature of the criminals he is seeing, and rather than risk being killed for something he cannot fathom, he hangs up his pistol. That is the entire point of the film—that Sheriff Bell is unable to determine a course of action and is equally unable to get a line on Chigurh and the people like him. It’s a stark and poignant moment, and it is truly what the story needs.


In short, I think this is the best thing the Coens have ever done. It follows the book it was based on religiously, and offers a new dark vision of what crime has become

Why to watch No Country for Old Men, The Coen Brothers have never been better.
Why not to watch: There’s a fair chance the ending will piss you off.


  1. When I first saw this film, I don't think I really 'got' it - all I remember is being completely entranced by Javier Bardem's performance. I loved it for that though! Definitely need to re-watch it!

  2. Same here. I don't recall liking this one at all first time through. My opinion changed when I recently watched/reviewed. I didn't mind the ending, in fact, i kind of liked it.

  3. It's my favorite Coen Brothers, and since I am a dedicated Coen fan, that's saying quite a bit.

    One thing I didn't get into was the spare but excellent dialogue. You need to exist in a place for years to get a sense of how people speak, and the dialogue here feels like we're listening to real people.

  4. One of the Coen brother's best, definitely! However, The Big Lebowski is, and always will be my favourite of theirs. I loved the ending myself, actually.

  5. I loved this up until the last 20 minutes. Yeah, I'm one of those. And even with your explanation, I thought that last 20 minutes is crap. I have no problem with the retirement thing. It's the lack of any catharsis... at all.

  6. Yeah, but the lack of catharsis is intentional. There's no catharsis here, because there's no catharsis to be had. It's left unfulfilled because that's the way Ed Tom leaves it.

    You can bet that the former sheriff will think about this for the rest of his life. And that's part of the point.

  7. I totally agree with you Steve. By far my favorite Coen movie. This is just a masterpiece from beginning to end. And damn, that Chigurh is something...

  8. Anton Chigurh is one of the single greatest cinematic villains ever devised. He's like the Energizer Bunny of evil.

    Javier Bardem earned every ounce of that Oscar.

  9. I like the film very, very much - let me get that out of the way.

    Here's my problem with the third act (if you want to call it that - it's really just with one thread). It's not "because there is no confrontation with Chigurh" - it's because the audience is left in the dark about what went down with Llewelyn. Yes, we could argue all day about who this story is really about, but I maintain that he is the protagonist, and the way he was just dumped, sight unseen, has never sat well with me at all.

    I'm pretty much fine with the rest, though the way it (absolutely) ends with the final cut is an annoyingly Coen-ish thing to do (though it bothered me a lot more in A Serious Man).

    I'll still take Fargo as my top Coens flick, tyvm.

  10. Y'know, I'll accept that as a problem with the film. It's not a problem that I experience, because I've always seen Ed Tom Bell as the real protagonist despite the fact that he's on screen far less than Chigurh and Moss. But I can see how that could be interpreted as a real shortcoming.

    Then again, if Ed Tom is the hero, he didn't see what happened, so neither do we.

    I like Fargo plenty. I just haven't rewatched it lately. I need to get on that.

  11. I can see where the "Ed Tom is the protagonist" camp is coming from, but I see him more as us, or as the storyteller. It's Llewelyn's actions that we are following from start to - oh, not quite finish.

  12. I haven't really thought of the movie that way, and if I do look at the movie that way, I see your problem with it.

    But I can't see anyone other than Ed Tom as the protagonist. Moss and Chigurh are merely the impetus that causes him to re-evaluate his position and his life.

    Way back in the day when I was a literature student, I can remember being told repeatedly that the focus of the story is on the character who is presented with the chance to change and either does or doesn't. In this case, that's Ed Tom.

  13. I LOVE this movie! Brolin, Jones, Bardem, even Harrelson (who I really didn't care much about before this film)--it was awesome in every detail. I even liked the ending.

    I love watching it over and over because for me it's damn near a perfect film.

    That said, I could watch 'Fargo' over and over, too.

    LOVE the Coens!


    1. As do I. This is a film I will defend to anyone--especially the ending, which I think is one of the best in recent years.

      As for the Coens, they rarely misstep, and rarely create something less than really good.