A Soul at Hazard: No Country for Old Men's 10th Anniversary
Some of the Talk Film Society writers look back at the Coen brothers’ Best Picture Oscar-winner, No Country For Old Men, in celebration of its ten-year anniversary.
Alex Miller: 2007 was a phenomenal year in American cinema and one of the headline films from that year was No Country for Old Men. I think it’s such a dense and commanding film that it took some time for the Coen’s tear-your-head-off aesthetic to sink into our collective consciousness and cultural vernacular.
Marcelo Pico: I vividly remember walking out of No Country in a daze. The Coens knocked me out, sure, but it wasn’t until a few rewatches later on that it really sunk in—the Coen brothers made another masterpiece. Understandably, people really didn’t like the movie off the bat; when I was walking out of the theater during my first screening, someone yelled at the screen, “Bullshit!” It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I would hear the same kind of frustration from an audience with There Will Be Blood.
Rockie Juarez: I had a guy scream something after No Country was over. He looked back at the audience and bellowed out, “WASTE OF TIME!” Whole audience was not on his side.
Sean Beattie: I walked out of the theater opening night with my uncle, and I recall immediately loving it while he... did not, to put it politely. We had a conversation about how he felt the movie’s whole thrust was basically this nihilistic “what’s even the point?” kind of story, and me agreeing emphatically with that assessment. Because it’s a noir-styled movie—from the moment the protagonist makes his “wrong choice”—the story can only end one way. And I love the commitment to that narrative structure that No Country for Old Men holds onto.
Matt Curione: Seeing No Country for the first time was a revelation. Before this I had seen the major (at least for me) Coen brothers films like Fargo and The Big Lebowski, so I knew they could handle various genres with ease; what I didn't expect was for them to make one of the best modern Westerns with this outing. I left the theater in a daze, shocked at what I'd just witnessed. “That's a Coen brothers movie alright,” I recall saying to my mother. The rest of my audience? You could say they were pretty nonplussed by the whole affair, but then again, most classics aren't regarded as such on initial viewings.
MP: After No Country, I caught up with all the Coen brothers movie I hadn’t seen. Once I watched Blood Simple, things really clicked. They’ve been tackling the themes present in No Country since the beginning—the cruel universe embodied in both menacing figures and not-so-bright leads. For as smart as Llewelyn (Josh Brolin) thinks he is, he’s still blinded by his greed and machismo, making him an ideal Coen brothers character. That same lack of clarity, for albeit different reasons, is seen in John Getz’s Ray in Blood Simple. That’s just the tip of iceberg in terms of similarities—Blood Simple and No Country were shot more than 20 years apart, but they’re spiritually tied together. The Coens, with No Country, had perfected their craft by 2007, but they were close-to-perfect even back in 1984.
AM: I think the Coens’ reputation as quirky stylists is something of a misnomer. While they command unique sensibilities, it feels like they are recording the world as they see it, and it’s this artistic authenticity that makes the blunt force of No Country so affecting as a thrilling revisionist Western and a revealing treatise on the nature of culture and time. It doesn’t feel like there’s any strain or reflex to the film’s construction, it’s one of the most genuine movies the Coens (or a anyone for that matter) has made.
RJ: I always felt No Country was their meanest film. Almost a ‘fuck you’ to the audience after the backlash they received for a left field picture like Intolerable Cruelty and remaking a beloved film, The Ladykillers. “Oh, you think we fell off? Eat this adaptation where everyone dies a gruesome death and everything feels hopeless.” It was a have-to-get-something-off-their-chests kind of aggressive. Other Coen films feel smart or freewheelingly, screwball silly; No Country is a monster, a total stand-out in their filmography whether you like the film or not.
MC: Since No Country came out ten years ago I've attempted to see as many Coen films as possible and this, their Best Picture winner, still ranks very high, personally. Outside of Fargo, nothing in their filmography can really touch its mastery of mood, tone, and genre.
SB: No Country wasn’t the first Coen film I’d seen—somehow, I convinced my parents to let me see Raising Arizona at, like, five years old. Still kind of wondering what they were thinking there, but it worked out for me. And it definitely influenced my sense of humor with the same nasty streak the Coens have displayed in every movie they’ve made. I’ve never been one for ranking (it’s why I don’t have a Letterboxd account), but I’d venture to say No Country is their best drama, certainly. Though it still has a true nasty streak of dark humor throughout, which I relish.
AM: Like every character who drifts into the orbit of the Coen Brothers, each and every player is distinct. Whether it’s the greasy-faced store clerk in Raising Arizona, or the rightfully nervous gas station attendant (Gene Jones) who survives the fateful coin toss with Anton Chigurh; there’s a cropped and unique quality to every cast member regardless of how much screen time they have. But it’s impossible not to mention the force-of-nature presence of Javier Bardem as the malevolent Chigurh; from the accent, to the haircut, and his indecipherable armory of bolt pistols and the silenced shotgun (?!), it all feeds into the imposing and enigmatic quality of an unstoppable killer. Kelly McDonald, an actor who, in my mind has never failed to deliver, contributes to the implacable otherness of the film. She endeared us with her distinct Scottish accent in Trainspotting, Gosford Park, and the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, but she feels entirely natural as Carla Jean Moss.
MC: Everyone talks about how great Javier Bardem is as the villain Anton Chigurh, but it's the cast that surrounds him that really impresses on repeat viewings. Josh Brolin has rarely been better than he is here, a man in way too deep over his head, played with a skill that's equal to anyone else in the picture. Tommy Lee Jones does his ‘Tommy Lee Jones Thing’ to great effect, bringing his character straight off the pages of Cormac McCarthy's source novel.
The main highlight of the supporting cast for me however would have to be Gene Jones (The Sacrament), playing a gas station attendant who has one of the most intense standoffs in a Coen brothers movie, playing opposite Bardem and matching him at every turn. Jones’ fear is palpable and is enough to silence even the loudest audience member; a bit part for the ages.
SB: My favorite characters in this film, entirely because of their respective performances, are Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) and Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson). Both performances are centered on undercutting major archetypes and their associated tropes. With Bell, Jones plays the wizened Western small-town sheriff, who is in fact just as in the dark as to what’s going on as anyone, though he knows exactly where it’s all headed. With Wells, Harrelson is on the flip-side of the law, essentially a bounty hunter sent after a bounty hunter, who’s all bluster and bravado but no instincts, which is why Chigurh gets the drop on him. Both performances are so pitch perfect at what they’re trying to be, that just how small they really are in the grand scheme is plain as day.
RJ: Listen the whole cast is great. They all deliver the bleak material with perfect clarity. But I need to focus on one actor in particular, and that’s Garret Dillahunt, who plays the dullest tool in the toolbox, Wendell. He’s not exactly the best man you’d like chasing a serial killer that has been creating a path of unfathomable destruction and he’s always two steps behind his brilliant boss, making obvious statements that Tommy Lee Jones grinds to shreds without shouting or bickering at him. Garret's dimwitted Wendell is a wonderful thing often never discussed in a film loaded with juggernaut performances.
MP: It’s always been about Tommy Lee Jones for me… Actually, that’s a lie—I didn’t catch on that this was Ed Tom Bell’s story more than Llewelyn’s until I watched it for a second time. The bookends seal it—Jones’ opening monologue, a voiceover against the West Texas landscape, perfectly sets up this world, and his closing dialogue leaves us cold, effectively leaving us alone in the world. Jones is Bell; his sunbaked, crevassed face witnessing the aftermath of Chigurh’s trail of death until he realizes he is the aftermath. I can’t see anyone else recite the words of Cormac McCarthy, by way of the Coens, as well as Jones.
MC: Luckily for me, No Country was released when I was still in college and taking a Modern Literature course, so the book was assigned closely following the film's release. Our professor was a big fan of McCarthy's work, and since reading the novel I've become a fan as well. It's an amazing novel, but what's even more amazing is that the Coens were able to capture that same feel from start to finish. There's very little in the film that isn't on the page, with the only real difference being an epilogue that focuses on Tommy Lee Jones’ character as he tries to process everything that's happened.
MP: Lest we forget, Roger Deakins. His sixth and seventh Oscar nominations for Best Cinematographer were for No Country and The Assassination of Jesse James in the same year. Sure, There Will Be Blood’s Robert Elswit ended up winning over the double Deakins nods, maybe deservingly so, but that doesn’t take away from some of the best work Deakins has ever done in No Country. The hotel showdown between Chigurh and Llewelyn for example, it’s one of the most tense sequences I’ve ever witnessed, and that’s thanks to the lighting (or lack thereof) provided by Deakins.
SB: While most cinematographers would settle for showing the West as overexposed and too warm by half simply because ‘Texas is hot,’ Deakins took the time to show off the dust, the neon and the fluorescent that’s also present. And that detail is critical; here, the harshest moments are the most harshly lit, unsettling the viewer right along with Llewelyn Moss. The revelatory moments are lit, if not in outright white light, with hints of cleaner sources to show things as they are (like when Ed Tom Bell arrives, all too late, to the scene). Deakins is rightly called a master of the craft, and No Country shows why.
MC: Just to be short, it's Roger Deakins! His work here, much like the rest of his filmography, is seismic. No detail is overlooked, the sense of space is textbook, and his shot compositions of the desert landscapes are works of art in and of themselves. Another Oscar-worthy turn behind the lens by the best DP of his generation.
MP: Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to watch No Country on the big screen. It was maybe my tenth time seeing it overall and my first time seeing it in theater in almost a decade; I’m here to report that its power still holds. If anything, age and the slight wisdom I’ve gained over the last decade has made me appreciate it more. No Country is about getting old and accepting the seemingly random cruelty. How we deal with it, well, that’s for us to decide. What Bell says in the beginning sums it up, “I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He'd have to say, ‘Okay, I'll be part of this world.’”
MC: Oh boy, this holds up. Still just as shocking and affecting as it was a decade ago, it's a classic Coen brothers picture with bad things happening to everyone all the time and always. It's bleak and uncompromising, featuring gorgeous visuals and pitch perfect performances by the entire cast, the Coens steady direction leading the way. It's a film I revisit with a regularity and one that I'll continue to watch for years to come.
SB: The only detail that could potentially age poorly with this film is the amount of money Moss takes off with in a duffel bag, but even that would be a minor quibble. No Country holds up better after ten years than most movies do after five. I could see the film falling out of favor as times become more optimistic, but… yeah, you let me know when those times are here. This movie’s all about people whose ethos is ‘I got mine,’ full stop, and where that leads when everyone shares the sentiment. If anything, it’s damned prescient.