The best movie of the year so far shows that you don’t necessarily need car chases, naked women, or outlandish special effects to create a compelling and memorable cinematic experience. Driven by Cormac McCarthy’s great story, gorgeous camera work by Roger Deakins, pitch perfect casting and acting—helmed and written by Joel and Ethan Coen—this pic succeeds just as dramatically as its genre cousin 3:10 to Yuma (2007) fails.
Although the film begins with a voice-over by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), it is easy enough to forget that he is the main protag of the piece, since we are immediately focusing on Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin). The time is 1980, and Moss is a Vietnam vet, the rare kind with two tours.
Moss is hunting in a desolate section of west Texas, and comes upon the grim remnants of a drug deal gone very bad, replete with plenty of corpses and one barely living Mexican in a truck, begging for water. Moss has no water to give him, and continues along the trail finding a briefcase containing $2 million. He comes home to his wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) with the loot, but his conscience gets the better of him, so he returns to the crime scene with a jug of water.
This, of course, is a big mistake as the thirsty guy is now dead, and Moss has been fingered by numerous parties looking for the money, the worst of whom is psycho hit man Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Chigurh has absolutely no problem killing whomever he encounters in the search, and favors a pneumatic cattle stun gun or sawed-off semi-automatic shotgun, although he is not limited to these.
Only a step or two behind, Bell sees the threat to Moss and his wife, and seems to sense the inevitability of it all. Still, he does try to protect them.
Meanwhile, the man who set up the drug deal (Stephen Root) is having second thoughts about his first choice Chigurh, who is certainly creating a commotion, so he hires the more slick hit man Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) to get the money and the killer. Wells is familiar with Chigurh, and when asked “Just how dangerous is he?,” Wells replies: “Compared to what? The bubonic plague?” It won’t spoil anything to tell you that hiring an additional hit man will turn out to be another big mistake.
The story plays out quite realistically, which is to say that it defies current cinema style, and its ending may indeed disappoint, even if it is faithful to the source material. To be sure, the Washington Post‘s Stephen Hunter disliked the film, especially the ending, finding it to be ironic but unsatisfying. He also critiques Chigurh’s weapons. Hunter—in perhaps the only negative review extant—makes some technical points, but for me, this is minor carping.
Remarkably, the film’s relatively slow pace works to its advantage, as does the Coens’ penchant for interrupting the relentlessly bleak narrative with humor, reminiscent of their Fargo (1996).
The movie’s title is taken from the first line of William Butler Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium.” McCarthy is comparing the legend and myth of ancient Byzantium to our own American West…
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
Sheriff Ed Tom Bell no doubt thinks that he is too old for the mayhem he sees, but of all the characters, young or old, only Chigurh is suited for this country, and he’s a psycho, albeit with his own perverse logic and a moral code of sorts.
Some sobering thoughts from an excellent film, hitting limited release just before the holiday rush.