Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 28, 2016)
After more than 20 years of film-making, Joel and Ethan Coen finally struck Oscar gold with 2007’s No Country for Old Men. Among other awards, it nabbed the much coveted Best Picture prize.
Did the Coens have to compromise their quirky/dark style to gain this honor? Nope – for good or for bad, Country feels distinctly like a Coen Brothers product, though it clearly favors the dark over the quirky. This means one should think more “bodies in the wood chipper” than “deadpan, pregnant, heavily accented Midwest cop”.
Set in desolate west Texas circa 1980, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles across a drug deal gone wrong. Among the corpses, he discovers lots of narcotics as well as a suitcase that contains a couple million bucks. Like many people would, he snags the cash and goes on his merry way.
This doesn’t leave him free and clear, though. Hired assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) goes after the money and doesn’t plan to simply ask nicely for its return. If he catches Moss, he will shoot first and ask questions later – a plan that applies to anyone else he encounters as well.
While Moss tries to keep ahead of Chigurh, local sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) tracks both of them. The film follows these threads and some other complications.
And gets darned bloody while it’s at it. Although we’ve seen some gritty Best Picture winners, Country stands out as something different to me. As violent and dark as some of them could be, they focused on the heroic side of things too much to be as grim as Country.
For instance, The Departed mostly focused on the perspective of an undercover cop who infiltrates a criminal organization. It features ethical complexities but maintains a clear sense of good and bad, and we’re largely exposed to a character who maintains – or tries to maintain, at least – the moral high ground.
No such nuances exist in Country. Sure, it offers the investigation by Sheriff Bell, but it doesn’t concentrate on his side of things over the other facets.
In fact, Sheriff Bell really plays a minor role through much of the film. We see much more of Chigurh and Moss than we do anyone else, probably because the Coens relish the bad guys more than they do the heroes. Granted, Moss doesn’t fit the mold of a true villain – he’s the besieged rodent in a cat and mouse chase with Chigurh’s relentless feline – but Moss sure isn’t anyone we’d view as a positive model.
This makes Country a dark ride, probably the grimmest Best Picture winner since 1991’s Silence of the Lambs. That one went for uglier subject matter and contained more evil at its core – no one here skins women and wears them as a suit – but at least it compensated with an actual heroic lead character who dominates the proceedings. For it to work the same as Country, we’d have needed to spend most of our time with Lecter and Gumb while Clarice makes only sporadic appearances that the filmmakers embrace in a half-hearted manner.
You can tell the Coens don’t care much about the Sheriff Bell side of things, at least during three-fourths of the film. They muster little interest in the white knight who tries to do the right thing.
The Coens would rather indulge in the psychopathic assassin who uses a bolt gun to slay his prey. After all, who’s more interesting: the vaguely John Wayne-style small town lawman or the amoral hitman with the moptop?
I must admit I’ve never considered myself to be a fan of the Coen Brothers. They can present a certain self-conscious side to their film-making, as their quirkiness feels precious and over the top to me. Especially in their comedies, I get the feeling they impress themselves too much with their fabricated eccentricities.
But maybe that’s just me, as the Coens certainly boast an extensive fan base. I don’t claim they lack talent, of course, and I’ve liked some of their films. I thought highly of Miller’s Crossing - one of their “straighter” films – and I maintain reasonable affection for Fargo, although believe it’s overrated.
It’s mainly the super-quirky comedic side of the Coens that irks me. To my relief, Country largely leaves that facet of their cinematic personalities out of the equation. Oh, the flick throws out the occasional oddball moment played for dark laughs, but the emphasis stays on the dramatic side of things.
And that’s what keeps Country on the positive side of the ledger most of the time. Even when the Coens embrace the oddly comic – like when a mariachi band awakens a bloodied character – the gag stays small and underplayed. The film lacks the oppressively broad strokes of some Coen films, so it doesn’t come across as quirky for quirky’s sake.
Does any of this make Country a great film? That’s the bigger question, and one for which I think the answer is “no”. I found Country to be an interesting movie, and it’s one that maintained my attention for its two hours despite some potential lulls.
As of 2007, Country may have been the least chatty Best Picture winner since 1927’s pre-talkie Wings. Dialogue scenes are few and far between in this effort, as “show” almost always trumps “tell”. It’s the polar opposite of fellow 2007 Best Picture nominee Juno, a flick that made its bones with its eccentric dialogue.
The lack of verbal material means that Country comes across as something unusual, but “unusual” and “great” aren’t the same thing. This is a good, reasonably involving flick but not anything that seems particularly memorable.
Actually, some of the elements that make it different can end up as flaws. While it certainly remains dark, that grimness ensures a one-note feel and it means an essential absence of character development.
Some of this changes during the third act, but I’m not sure it’s for the better. The tale takes a tone shift when Bell becomes more central to the plot, and viewers are sure to debate ad infinitum whether or not this turn actually works. Maybe it’s brilliant and deep, maybe it’s pointless and inconclusive, or maybe it’s neither.
The final act creates a distinct contrast with the rest of the film, and I still really don’t know how I feel about it. On one hand, I applaud the decision not to give Country a more traditional conclusion; the movie goes in an unexpected path that allows it to stand out against its predecessors.
On the other hand, I can’t say that the ending feels satisfying. Perhaps that’s the point – to avoid spoilers, I don’t want to get too detailed here – but when the flick ends, you may be left somewhat befuddled.
Ultimately, No Country for Old Men is a good film, and one that certainly works better than the average Coen Brothers effort. I don’t think it deserves all the praise it’s received, though, as I can’t quite view it as a great piece of work. The movie has a lot going for it but falls short of excellence.