from Uncle Scoopy (Johnny Web)
WARNING: Complete point-by-point spoilers.
It is 1980. Llewellyn Moss is out hunting antelope on the arid terrain of West Texas when he stumbles upon the messy result of a drug deal gone bad. Automatic weapons are strewn across the landscape. Only one man is left alive at the site, and he barely so, capable only of begging Moss for some water. The site contains several corpses and some pick-up trucks, one of which has a flat bed filled with heroin. Moss reasons that the scene is missing one thing: the money which was to pay for the heroin. He finds a trail of blood leading to a nearby shade tree, under which he finds another dead man and a satchel containing some two million dollars in hundred dollar bills.
Llewellyn is a 30-something Vietnam vet who makes a living as a welder. Two million 1980 dollars is far more than he could ever earn in his lifetime, so he grabs the satchel and a few weapons and high-tails it back to his trailer. Nobody could know that he had been there, so he seems to have escaped scot-free. But Llewellyn is not a simple man, and not a bad one. He can't sleep that night because of the shame he feels for having denied the one survivor a drink of water, so he fills a container and heads back to the remote desert locale.
It was a decision which would alter his life even more than having found the money in the first place. As he wanders through the scene of the shoot-out, he looks in the direction of his truck and sees some human silhouettes in the moonlight. The men are slashing his tires, cutting off his escape route. He realizes that he must flee, so he does, pursued by armed men and dogs. After a harrowing chase he manages to escape, but realizes that he is doomed because the bad guys have his license plate number. It will be only a short time before some very violent men appear on his doorstep to take their money, probably not before they kill Llewellyn and his teenage wife.
He doesn't know the half of it. The Mexican heroin dealers he encountered are the least of his problems. He needs to worry far more about the man who represents the money side of the deal, a psychopathic loner named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Chigurh is not only violent, but mad as well. His favorite toy is a compressed air gun which is designed to kill cattle at point-blank range, but is also effective on door locks ... and human beings. The air blows out a sharp metal prong which is returned back into the device, leaving a wound which looks like it was created by a large-gauge gun, but with no bullet and no exit wound. When Chigurh is not killing with this toy, he uses a scary-looking shotgun which is equipped with a glistening silencer as big around as a large can of chili. Chigurh kills people who get in his way, people who irritate him, and sometimes just people that he feels like killing. Hotel clerks and convenience store employees will not welcome his arrival. The only mercy he shows derives from occasional coin flips. Sometimes he will offer a victim a chance to live with a correct "call."
At the present, his goal is to retrieve the money from Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and, it goes without saying, to dispose of Moss for the inconvenience he has caused.
The rest of the film ... well MOST of the rest of the film ... is devoted to Chigurh's pursuit of Moss, who is a pretty resourceful and tough character himself. Pursuing both of them is a small-town sheriff who really doesn't like the fact that his duty is taking him into a war from which he is not likely to emerge unscathed. The sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) is not a coward, and he does not shirk his duty, but he's about 60 years old in 1980, and he became sheriff of the same county when he was 25, which must have been around the end of WW2. Things have changed a lot since he took the job, and he feels overmatched by the sadism, firepower, and sheer evil of the people associated with the heroin trade. He came up in an Andy of Mayberry world where the sheriffs didn't even have to carry guns, and now he's an old man who is supposed to be the thin line between good citizens and a world of violent desperados with no regard for the value of human life. He knows that Anton Chigurh is not afraid to drive around a police car in broad daylight, has killed a deputy in the police station, and enjoys killing human beings with a cattle gun. Chigurh has absolutely no conscience and no sense of restraint. He's smart, high-tech, has no fear of death, and is totally mad. That's a tough match-up for Andy of Mayberry, especially since Andy is now an old man, and the new West is no country for old men.
Your reaction to this film will be based on the expectations you bring to it, so I'm going to write three separate reviews. One is for those of you who have read Cormac McCarthy's eponymous novel and are wondering how successfully and faithfully The Coen Brothers brought it to the screen. Another is for those of you who wonder how the film succeeds as art, as a sort of existentialist meditation on the condition of the world, a film with an indie gestalt but made with big studio dollars. The other review will be for those of you who are interested in how well the film succeeds as a conventional thriller.
No Country for Old Men as a literary adaptation.
Let me cut to the chase. It could not be better. I re-read the book after watching the movie, and I was astounded by the accuracy of the film's representation. It follows the story perfectly, eliminating only one long section with a non-essential character. It catches the mood, tone, and atmosphere perfectly. It uses the dialogue and the sheriff's pseudo monologues almost verbatim from the book.
In fact, the movie is better than the book in several ways, even as it stays completely faithful to it. Here are some examples that come to mind:
1. The elimination of the hitchhiker character was something that McCarthy himself might have considered if the length of his story was under any contraints, but McCarthy had the theoretically unlimited measure of the written page to develop his ideas at his own leisurely pace. Lacking that luxury, the Coens managed to accomplish everything necessary without that supererogatory character, and in the process kept the focus tighter on the main characters, which is where it belonged.
2. McCarthy's plot had a few holes in it, and the Coens plugged them up. I'll cite one example. The two parties in the botched drug deal are both after Llewellyn Moss. Although the madman Anton Chigurh has an electronic device which receives a signal from the valise containing the money, he gets to Moss after the Mexicans. How could they beat him there? They could not have. The original drug deal was a swap of money for drugs. The Mexicans supplied the drugs, the Houston syndicate supplied the money. It was the money which contained a transmitter. The other party, never having been in possession of the money, could not have known about it. Therefore, it is not possible for them to have found Moss at all in his first motel hide-out in Del Rio, let alone to have found him faster than a man with a receiver tuned to the proper frequency. The book created an impossible situation. The film script fixed this problem with two short lines. Chigurh sees the problem as well, so before he kills the last Mexican he says, "How'd you find it?" He gets no answer, but he figures it out on his own. Later, when Chigurh shoots the scheming businessman in his elegant office, the executive's accountant looks to the killer with a questioning expression, and Chigurh explains, "He gave Acosta's people a receiver." Neither of those lines was in the book, but when put together they fixed the plot problem.
3. One of the film's best scenes, a real cinematic delight, is not in the book. As Llewellyn is pursued by the Mexicans from the original crime scene, he escapes by jumping into a swiftly flowing stream. But he does not escape from their dog. The hound stays behind him in the water, closing on him. He makes it to the bank, but his gun is filled with water, sand, and stones, so there is a grave possibility that it will not be in condition to fire in time to save him from the vicious canine. Just as the dog reaches the bank, finds his land-legs, and attacks his prey, Llewellyn pulls the trigger and hopes for the best. He is lucky. The gun fires, and the dog dies in mid-leap, but it was such a close call that the dead dog still has enough momentum from his jump to reach the man. The thrilling canine pursuit made a great scene even better.
4. Toward the end of the book, Llewellyn's courageous, loyal young wife is offered a coin toss for her life by Chigurh. She makes the call and loses. In the movie, she refuses to make the call. In my mind, that was an excellent change, completely in character for the stubborn Carla Jean.
Balancing off those positive changes is one modification which can be considered both negative and positive. The book's concept of Anton Chigurh is basically a ghost who can float into any place unnoticed, then wreak havoc when he's inside. He's the kind of person one would never suspect of being a murderous psychopath. The film, on the other hand, made him look as crazy as he was. With a shambling walk, a dumpy wardrobe, a strange accent, and the same haircut as the kid on the Dutch Boy Paint can, he might just as well have "warning: severe mental problems" tattooed on his forehead. The bad news is that this appearance diminished his credibility, but the offset is that it simultaneously created a truly memorable film villain. Film is, after all, a visual medium and if Chigurh had been a sensibly dressed man with shined shoes and an expensive haircut, his achievements might have been more believable, but his image would not haunt our dreams forever.
With the possible exception of Chigurh's douchey appearance, Cormac McCarthy would not only have to be happy with the adaptation, but would have to confront the changes by thinking, "I should have thought of that!" It may be the best literary adaptation ever put on film, possibly better even than The Sweet Hereafter. If you loved the book you are going to be completely satisfied with the movie. I can't imagine how it could have been translated to film any better.
No Country for Old Men as a kick-ass thriller
I'll cut to the chase again. It is the kickest assiest thriller you've ever seen for about the first 2/3 of the film, but if you want the standard forms of catharsis provided by this type of film, you will end up with your jaw clenched in frustration.
The first 2/3 are an absolutely awe-inspiring example of how to tell a story without any dialogue. Llewellyn Moss and Chigurh are alone most of the time. When they do make contact with other people, the dialogue is not expository, but an integral part of the film's atmosphere, characterization or humor. The actual plot is carried almost entirely by POV images and ambient sound. 100% of the sound is diegetic, meaning sounds from within the actual story which can be heard by the characters. In other words there is no "score," no sounds which can only be heard by the audience. The audience has to figure out what the characters are doing from what is seen and heard, in precisely the same way and at the same time that the film's characters have to figure it out. Because the film fundamentally proceeds without any expository dialogue or voice-over, the plot is related without any form of omniscient narration. Many books do that successfully, but it is truly rare for a film to let the audience experience only the sights and sounds which are exposed to the characters. The audience must thus form opinions and interpretations on the fly exactly as the characters form them (and are thus liable to the same slow interpretations or temporary misinterpretations!). For more than an hour, the audience lives within the paranoid world of Llewellyn Moss, the good ol' Texas boy trying to figure out how to hang on to two million dollars while being pursued by an efficient killing machine.
Although we are psychologically invested in Moss, there is no reason for us to look down on Chigurh. Like Moss, we have to fear him and respect what he can do, even if we hate it. When Chigurh is badly hurt, he patches himself up stoically, waits until he's ready for action again, and gets back on the field. When he breaks a bone in a car crash, he makes a makeshift sling and walks away before the ambulance can arrive. This is the sort of thing a good guy might do in an old-time Hollywood movie. We are used to seeing the bad guys whine and beg when finally cornered, but that's never going to happen with this character. There's no sniveling or ranting, nothing to remind us that he is wearing the metaphorical black hat. He's a cool customer. As the Sheriff says in the film, "Boy's got some hard bark on 'im."
For an hour the two men play cat and mouse, with Llewellyn giving as good as he gets, because our Llewellyn is no dummy and no pussy. Every scene is fraught with tension and the possibility of death for either or both.
And then ...
And then the thriller part of our entertainment is over.
Just like that.
After we make a great psychological investment in Llewellyn and think that he just might have a chance to survive because Chigurh has temporarily lost the trail, he is killed off-camera by some minor characters.
Yup. That's it. No faked death. No face-off with Chigurh. He's dead as a doornail. We hear that he was killed in a gun fight with the Mexican heroin dealers. They beat Chigurh to the prey by conning Llewellyn's mother-in-law into revealing his whereabouts.
Is that the end of the movie?
I didn't say that. I just said it was the end of the thriller. The film goes on for another half hour with a different focus.
Moss is dead, but
the Mexicans didn't get the money, so Chigurh is still in the game.
The sheriff doesn't know for sure, but suspects that the money may
still be in play because the Mexicans had to leave in a hurry, so he goes to Moss's hotel room and crosses the
crime scene tape. He pauses at the door. I'm going to let the film's
script pick it up from there: The yellow tape is about chest high. Above
it is the lock cylinder. It has been punched hollow. Sheriff bell
stands staring at the lock. Very quiet. The chick. chick. Of the
tape-ends against the doorframe. Still. INSIDE Chigurh is still also. Just on the other
side of the door, he stands holding his shotgun. From inside, the
tap of the breeze-blown tape is dulled but perceptible. It counts
out beats. Chigurh is also looking at the lock cylinder. The curved
brass of its hollow interior hold a reflection of the motel room
exterior. Lights and shapes. The curvature distorts to
unrecognizability what is reflected, but we see the color of Sheriff
Bell's uniform. The reflection is still. OUTSIDE Sheriff Bell finishes bringing his hand to
his holstered gun. It rests there. Still once again. His
point-of-view of the lock. The reflection from there, darker, is
hard to read. INSIDE Chigurh, still. OUTSIDE Sheriff Bell, his hand on his holstered
gun. A long beat. His hand drops. He extends one booted toe.
He nudges the door inward. As the lock cylinder slowly recedes,
reflected shapes scramble inside it and slide up its curve. Before
the door is fully open we cut around: FROM INSIDE The door finishes creaking open. Sheriff
Bell is a silhouette in the doorway. A still beat. At length
Sheriff Bell ducks under the chest-high police tape to enter. The
worn carpet has a large stain that glistens near the door. Sheriff
Bell steps over it, advancing slowly. The room is dimly lit shapes.
There is a bathroom door in the depth of the room. Sheriff Bell
advances toward it. He stops in front of it. He toes the door. It
creaks slowly open. The bathroom, with no spill light from
outside, is pitch black. Sheriff Bell reaches slowly up with one
hand. He gropes at the inside wall. The light goes on: bright. White
tile. Sheriff Bell squints. A beat. He takes a step in.
He looks at the small window. He looks at the window's
swivel-catch, locked. MAIN ROOM Sheriff Bell emerges from the bathroom. He
sits heavily onto the bed. He looks around, not for anything
in particular. His look catches on something low, just in front of
him: A ventilation duct near the baseboard. Its opening is exposed;
its grille lies on the floor before it. Sheriff Bell stares.
At length he leans forward. He nudges the grille aside. On the
floor, a couple of screws. A coin.
The yellow tape is about chest high. Above it is the lock cylinder. It has been punched hollow. Sheriff bell stands staring at the lock. Very quiet. The chick. chick. Of the tape-ends against the doorframe. Still.
Chigurh is still also. Just on the other side of the door, he stands holding his shotgun. From inside, the tap of the breeze-blown tape is dulled but perceptible. It counts out beats. Chigurh is also looking at the lock cylinder. The curved brass of its hollow interior hold a reflection of the motel room exterior. Lights and shapes. The curvature distorts to unrecognizability what is reflected, but we see the color of Sheriff Bell's uniform. The reflection is still.
Sheriff Bell finishes bringing his hand to his holstered gun. It rests there. Still once again. His point-of-view of the lock. The reflection from there, darker, is hard to read.
Sheriff Bell, his hand on his holstered gun. A long beat. His hand drops. He extends one booted toe. He nudges the door inward. As the lock cylinder slowly recedes, reflected shapes scramble inside it and slide up its curve. Before the door is fully open we cut around:
The door finishes creaking open. Sheriff Bell is a silhouette in the doorway. A still beat. At length Sheriff Bell ducks under the chest-high police tape to enter. The worn carpet has a large stain that glistens near the door. Sheriff Bell steps over it, advancing slowly. The room is dimly lit shapes. There is a bathroom door in the depth of the room. Sheriff Bell advances toward it. He stops in front of it. He toes the door. It creaks slowly open. The bathroom, with no spill light from outside, is pitch black. Sheriff Bell reaches slowly up with one hand. He gropes at the inside wall. The light goes on: bright. White tile. Sheriff Bell squints. A beat. He takes a step in. He looks at the small window. He looks at the window's swivel-catch, locked.
Sheriff Bell emerges from the bathroom. He sits heavily onto the bed. He looks around, not for anything in particular. His look catches on something low, just in front of him: A ventilation duct near the baseboard. Its opening is exposed; its grille lies on the floor before it. Sheriff Bell stares. At length he leans forward. He nudges the grille aside. On the floor, a couple of screws. A coin.
That is a great scene in many ways, told silently, consistent with the earlier part of the film. But something is wrong. If Chigurh was on the other side of that door, how did he escape? He couldn't have. If he had been there, he would have had to confront the sheriff in some way.
Is this a plot hole? Sloppy filmmaking?
Not at all.
While the first part of the film had taken place entirely in the real world, part of this one is taking place in the sheriff's mind. As he approaches the room, he sees the blown-out lock and imagines the terrifying spectre which he must confront.
But Anton could not have been in that room at that time, because the sheriff opened the door right to where he would have been standing. The sheriff saw the rest of the room in front of him, and checked the bathroom. In addition, nobody could have left through the bathroom window.
Here's what happens in that scene, I believe:
The sheriff sees the door cylinder
and imagines the unthinkable just on the other side of the door. He
swings the door open to eliminate the possibility that someone would
be just to his left, behind the door. With that possibility
eliminated, he sees the entire room in front of him, empty. He's safe
unless Chigurh is in the bathroom. He approaches the bathroom
terrified, but finally sees that there is nobody there and that nobody
could have gone through the window. Since the sheriff knows Chigurh
was there (from the blown-out cylinder), he therefore knows that he
must have walked out the front door before the sheriff arrived, and
ol' Sheriff Ed Tom has narrowly avoided the reaper. He sits on the bed
and spots Chigurh's deliberate handiwork behind him. A man using a
coin to pry open a vent slowly when he has a compressed air weapon at
his disposal is obviously not in any hurry to get his two million
dollars, so Ed Tom realizes just how close to death he has come. If he
had sipped his coffee a bit faster he would be dead.
There is one more series of events to reveal. Chigurh goes to the home of Moss's wife and offers her the coin flip option. The stubborn young woman refuses. We then see Chigurh leaving the house and checking for blood on his person. We presume Carla Jean has been killed. (The book says explicitly that she was killed, but after losing the coin toss, not after refusing to play the game.) Chigurh drives away down the streets of a quiet suburban neighborhood when he is hit from the side by somebody who ran a red light.
Is he, like the other main character, to be killed offscreen by a minor character?
No. Moss lost his metaphorical coin flip, but Chigurh won his. He's bleeding and has a broken arm, but he offers a curious kid a hundred dollar bill for his shirt, makes a makeshift sling, and walks away before the paramedics and police arrive. That is the last we see of him.
There is only the Sheriff's fate left to resolve. Like most retired men, he has too little to occupy his time, so he finishes the film by telling his wife his dreams.
I have to confess that I was not even aware when the film ended. There is one sure way to get my eyes to glaze over with lack of interest and/or to put me to sleep altogether, and that is to tell me your dreams. The sheriff was rambling on and on, my attention wandered, and then I noticed that the credits were rolling.
If it had been my film, I would have cut the Uncle Ellis scene altogether. As I already noted, if the film were projected without this scene, it would create no sense that anything is missing, and the sheriff's monologue to his wife would be sufficient to deliver those themes which are encapsulated by his retirement. The only reason I drifted into unconsciousness in that last scene is that I was expecting another long, rambling discussion like the one with Uncle Ellis, and covering the exact same ground again. I was therefore tuning it out. Without the Uncle Ellis scene, the scene with the wife would be a short, bittersweet epilogue.
So the bottom line on the film as a thriller is this: For an hour or so it is the best goddamned thriller you'll ever see. And then it is a completely different movie. If you are a mainstream filmgoer, you will be frustrated by the fact that you have so much empathy invested in a character who dies off camera, you'll be bored to tears by the sheriff's last two scenes, and you'll be confused by the scene which takes place partly in the sheriff's head. If you go to the film expecting a thriller, your expectations will be raised to the roof, then dashed. If you get involved in the thriller, you'll be frustrated when the film mutates into Bergman on the Prairie.
No Country for Old Men as cinematic art.
If you can accept the sudden shift of focus in the final third, you'll find this to be one helluva movie. Of this I have no doubt. The storyboarding is flawless. The cinematography is both technically excellent and evocative. Several scenes will have you chewing your nails from the tension. The acting can be absolutely brilliant. I saw the movie, re-read the book, and then re-watched the movie. I wanted to be an actor once, so as I re-read the book and saw the identical dialogue, I imagined how to deliver the lines in character.
One thing keeps No Country from being a flat-out masterpiece. Well, two things if you count Uncle Fucking Ellis. The main thing is that the film's last minute grasp at the meaning of life comes from a character who has not really been integrated into the broth and marrow of the film's central appeal. For the first 2/3 of the movie, Sheriff Bell is not in synch with Chigurh and Moss, but rather a half-step behind them. He has done nothing to earn our interest. We root for Moss. We are fascinated by Chigurh. We just don't care about the sheriff either way. Because of that, we don't care much about what he says to his relatives to summarize his life. The last third of the film is an epilogue involving a minor character who only interested us when he was interfacing with the main Moss-Chigurh plot.
The sheriff exists in the novel because he is a necessary literary device. He was the only character who could be used to develop the book's themes within the story itself without resorting to omniscient narration. Moss is not the kind of man given to reflecting about life. Chigurh offers plenty of existential philosophy, but his outlook is so skewed by evil lunacy that he can't serve the purpose of carrying the author's reflections. The inherent natures of the two main characters left them both unsuitable for sober reflection, leaving only the sheriff to meditate on the changes in the world and the need to either adapt to those changes or step out of the way. No problem in a novel. Most readers don't start shifting around in their chairs when a lesser character is used as a tool to carry some philosophical baggage for the author. In fact, great stories are often recounted by bit players from the sidelines, ala the narrator of The Great Gatsby. But that sort of thing doesn't work as well on film, and it doesn't work at all when artificially tacked on ... and on ... and on ... after the main story has ended. It would have worked much better if the philosophical themes could have been developed (1) right within the main storyline; and (2) by a character we had already invested some empathy in. Perhaps then it would not have seemed as if the film's epilogue was as long as the film itself.
To be sure, No Country has some problems. The last third is kinda boring. Uncle Ellis and Woody Harrelson (as a bounty hunter) are superfluous and could easily have joined the hitchhiker on the cutting room floor in order to improve the pace. But all of that notwithstanding, No Country for Old Men stands as a complete return to form for the Coens after a series of major missteps. The film has too many positives to ignore. It's a brilliant literary adaptation. It creates memorable larger-than-life iconography in the Chigurh character. It demonstrates a complete mastery of virtually every technical aspect of filmmaking. And the first 2/3 of it are as taut a thriller as I have ever seen, made even better because the story is told without expository dialogue.
It is almost certainly one of the five films which should be nominated by the Academy to vie for its Best Picture award.
Return to the Movie House home page