Recently, my Master Shots co-author Burnt Orange recommended me to watch Westworld, a show which I had skipped upon initial release. I watched it, loved it, and subsequently became motivated to revisit some of my favorite Westerns. The genre as a whole is perhaps the most overdone in cinema history, being some of the earliest examples of big screen fiction. Among the plethora of these films, only a few have taken the genre and truly bent it into something new and refreshing. No Country for Old Men in my mind is the quintessential example of how this can be achieved. Directors Joe and Ethan Coen build surging suspense almost entirely off of unique characterization and visual direction, as opposed to relying on big action set pieces and blaring soundtracks. In the midst of hundreds of rootin’ tootin’ shoot-em-up cowboy flicks, the more subtle No Country miraculously stands out as one of the most intense Westerns of all time.
Last year, I reviewed the amazing Ballad of Buster Scruggs, another Coen Brothers film, which distinctly plays as a love letter to the Old West, boasting sweeping colorful cinematography, and loaded with fresh takes on old tropes. Conversely, No Country is a “stepping stone film”, showing the transition of the lawlessness, heroism, and epic scope of the wild west, into the drug trade-driven hyperviolence of the 1980s. The stage is set with the film’s protagonist, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), stumbling by chance across a stash of cash at the site of a drug trade gone wrong. He consequentially is forced on the run by the bone-chilling Anton Chigurh (played brilliantly by Javier Bardem), a ruthless and calculated assassin driven by the insatiable goal of accomplishing his mission to retrieve the cash, no matter how bloody or murderous he needs to be. Anton represents a shift in the typical criminal disposition. He determines the fate of passers-by via a coin toss. He shows no emotion in his killing. Compared to classic Western bounty hunters, Anton is nearly mechanical in his every action, representing both a new age of modern violent crime, as well as the rise in psychopathy that gained more public prominence over the past half a century.
This bounty hunt draws an unsuspecting hero into the mix: Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), an aging sheriff of a bygone era, who’s cowboy disposition is more akin to Andy Griffith than Clint Eastwood. He’s tired and weary, and as his investigation into the location of Llewelyn and the missing cash goes on, he consistently overlooks key clues to prevent further bloodshed. Sheriff Bell is self-admittedly incompatible with handling the modern course of violence. He’s out of place, and would be more fit to solve a classic case of a masked bank robber, or saving a damsel tied up at the end of a train track. Similar to Officer Gunderson in Fargo, Bell stumbles around bullet-riddled corpses rotting in the desert, and murders at hotel rooms spattered with blood, frequently expressing either physically or in speech just how unprepared he is to move forward in the case. Its this dichotomy between the brutal trail of violence left by Anton, and the classic spyglass sleuthing of Sheriff Bell that make the film’s development so intriguing, evolving beyond the Wild West, but derailing from a cat-and-mouse thriller. No Country instead places itself into a unique genre, somewhere between the polar opposite cowboy flick Shane, and the crime thriller Heat.
I’m convinced Joel and Ethan Coen have completely mastered the concept of what it means for a film to be a Western. In Buster Scruggs, the audience is treated to grandiose stories and visuals of a bygone era. In True Grit, we see a very raw and realistic portrayal of the wild west, pushing past classic tropes to tell a thoroughly realistic and engaging story. No Country for Old Men is the next phase for The West; the genre isn’t buried and given a gravestone here, instead it finds new life in a modern context. Adding to the excellent and original writing is crisp cinematography from Roger Deakins. His work here is excellent as to be expected, but No Country is perhaps one of the best examples of his framing and lighting skills. I’m fairly often asked the loaded question “what movie should I watch next?” No Country for Old Men is usually one of my first recommendations. In my mind, it establishes itself as a perfect example of a quality film that’s outside the parameters of typical movie genres, while not being overly pretentious or unrelatable to wide audiences.