As I continue my extended attempts to catch up with films I really should have seen, the back catalogue of the esteemed Coen Brothers has proved interesting. I strongly dislike Burn After Reading, I couldn’t get into Fargo and I loved The Big Lebowski. However, it is their 2007 Oscar winning effort No Country For Old Men that has held the most appeal for me so far – I’m finally reviewing it after my third watch.
After lone hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon an apparent drug deal gone wrong, he makes off with more than $2m of somebody else’s money. Now, if you find $2m in cash that doesn’t belong to you, it’s a safe bet that somewhere there will be somebody looking for it. In this case, those people are a group of Mexican’s trying to get what’s theirs, and merciless hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). A tense story unfurls as Llewelyn tries to avoid Chigurh and keep the money for himself, whilst avoiding any harm coming to his wife (Kelly Macdonald).
No Country For Old Men is wrought with tension throughout. Vast, open stretches of desert are shot beautifully with much of the film playing out in dark, deserted areas. There is minimal dialogue but every word that is spoken is perfectly chosen with not a single line wasted. Chigurh’s dialogue is perhaps the most interesting; witness a superb scene in a gas station where he has the owner call a coin toss to decide whether he lives or dies. He manages to come across as both plain-speaking and elusive at the same time. He is at once an incredibly simple, yet astonishingly complex character.
One facet of this film that I love is the lack of back story afforded to many of the characters. Everything that happens is as a direct consequence of Llewelyn’s decision to take the money that he stumbled across. Exposition is at a premium which, to me at least, only adds to the tension. Without it, personalities and motives aren’t so easy to fathom and when that information isn’t readily offered up, actions become difficult to second guess.
The movie benefits from some incredible cinematography; the use of the darkness that so often consumes the screen is extremely impressive, adding a claustrophobic and creepy feel to the proceedings. I have rarely seen a film that creates tension so well through its visuals. All of this is aided by a superbly judged score that is often hardly noticeable but is there, in the background, quietly impacting on the viewing experience.
Rare is the movie where every person involved is so clearly on the same page, but that is what we have here. Each lead performance feels understated yet resonates through the entire feature. This is put across by Bardem and Brolin as well as Tommy-Lee Jones, playing a local sheriff.
Javier Bardem is probably the standout performer in a film that is acted well all-round. His hitman is full of affectations, perhaps the most noticeable being a desire to keep his shoes clean at all times – watch him take them off before executing a hit, or checking them for blood afterwards. With his frankly frightening haircut and deranged smile, his screentime is constantly uncomfortable to witness.
From the actors and the Coen Brothers themselves, everything about No Country For Old Men feels meticulous, deliberate and precise. Good dialogue, great silences, top class performances and a masterclass in cinematography make this a superbly judged thriller. My experience has been that it gets better with repeated viewings. It is just about as atmospheric as thrillers come, with a gripping story that will hold you until the very end.