Rightly predicting that this film would secure the 2008 Best Picture Oscar, this review was written for the RTE website. During my year and a half with the site I reviewed movies for the site on a weekly basis and many more can be found by browsing the film archives of the RTE Entertainment site.
No Country For Old Men (Film Review)
Originally published on RTE.ie, 10th January 2008
Eleven years on from the unforgettable ‘Fargo’, the Coen brothers have made what may well be their masterpiece.
After two particularly below par releases in ‘Intolerable Cruelty’ and ‘The Ladykillers’, the largely infallible duo have demonstrated just why they are two of the finest craftsmen working in modern-day cinema.
Excelling in every aspect of movie-making, you’ll be hard-pressed to see a finer piece of cinema than ‘No Country for Old Men’. It really is that good.
Only Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘There Will Be Blood’ – should it live up to the critical hype emanating from the US – may realistically stand between the Coens and the Best Picture award at this year’s Oscars.
Set in 1980s West Texas, ‘No Country for Old Men’ revolves around a bag of money, and meditates on a growing fixation amongst the populous for quick fix riches – and a bloodthirsty willingness to secure them.
Though adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed novel, the plot is pure Coen brothers and reminiscent of both ‘Fargo’ and their debut picture, ‘Blood Simple’.
Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) is a local nobody who stumbles upon $2m in cash and is dumb enough to think that he’s smart enough to simply take the money and run. As the film’s tagline informs us, there are no clean getaways, and sure enough Llewelyn soon finds himself pursued by Anton Chigurh (Bardem), a terrifyingly deadpan psychopath who chills the blood each time he appears on screen.
Tracking both of them across the bleak desert landscape of West Texas’ border towns is Ed Tom Bell (Jones), a weary local sheriff on the verge of retirement and all too aware of the escalation in violence throughout the country and the drugs and money which propel it.
What follows is a thrilling and unpredictable cat and mouse chase.
Unlike most adaptations, the Coens faithfully follow McCarthy’s novel with each scene appearing on screen in the same chronological order as it does on page. Even the ending, which will frustrate some, can be found on the final page of the novel – a testament to the Coens’ restraint in not going “all Hollywood” on the material.
Yet, though much of the attention to detail that makes ‘No Country for Old Men’ so great appears in McCarthy’s novel, it’s the way in which the Coens execute the text that is testament to their genius.
Tight editing, typically superb cinematography and immense performances all underpin the brothers’ fantastic adapted screenplay.
A scene, such as Bardem’s encounter with a rural store clerk, may have been culled by other screenwriters but the Coens rightly spot its importance in emphasising the film’s major theme – that of fate and luck.
Furthermore, though there is very little dialogue throughout the movie, each line serves real purpose. A throwaway line such as the Deputy Sheriff commenting, “they even shot the dog” delivers humour whilst also highlighting the shock at the rise in violence which underscores the film’s title.
The absence of dialogue also highlights what masterful storytellers the Coens truly are, with each shot silently moving the action along.
Sound, meanwhile, has rarely been used to better effect. Though there is no music used in the movie, the sounds of Texan desert dust crunching under feet or the creek of hotel floorboards adds to the film’s tension.
One scene in particular emphasises the power of such technique as the audience remain transfixed and absorbed by the suspense of silence. Here, we hear a tracking device beep and a floorboard creek followed by the appearance of a shadow covering a sliver of light outside a door. Then the sound of a light bulb being unscrewed. Though we know what will happen next, the effect is breathtaking.
While every member of the cast is immense – from Brolin and Jones’ central characters to Harrelson and Macdonald’s supporting roles – the real stand out is Bardem.
Here is an unforgettable screen killer, chillingly evil and whose every appearance puts the audience on edge. Armed with a trademark weapon, a wicked sense of mirth and a sociopathic look, Bardem’s Chigurh is nightmarishly terrifying and a shoe-in for the Best Supporting Actor gong.
A thundering return to form for the Coen brothers, the Oscars have their gem. ‘No Country for Old Men’ is not only one of the best thrillers in an age, but a haunting, unnerving, frequently funny, unforgettable classic that is as perfect as cinema can get, and a rare example of an instance where a novel has been faithfully adapted to play to the strengths of its film makers.