NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007) left audiences captured in dark silence, save the ticking of a single clock, as Joel and Ethan Coen’s names projected on the black canvas, claiming joint writing (screenplay) and directing titles. The film is an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel of the same name. It was a far cry from the duo’s last two films, INTOLERABLE CRUELTY (2003) and THE LADYKILLERS (2004), both of which underwhelmed critics. However, the visceral masterpiece’s success didn’t come as too much of a shock, given the main creators behind it are also responsible for other gritty thrillers such as FARGO (1996) and BLOOD SIMPLE (1984).
The concept of the film is laid open for the audience right from the beginning. As Ed Tom Bell’s (Tommy Lee Jones), lilting southern drawl begins his story with reminiscing about the “old- timers,” the dutiful lawmen of the South before him, including his grandfather and father. Panoramic views of Texas are presented to the viewer, and immediately an Old Western, in the style of Classic Western filmmaker Sam Peckinpah (THE WILD BUNCH (1969)), comes to mind. He goes on to wonder how the old-timers would have handled the evils of the modern world through the story of sending a boy to the electric chair for murdering a fourteen year-old girl. The boy had told him “he’d always wanted to do it… and he’d do it again.” As he explains his inability to comprehend the types of psychopathic criminals that he believes are new to society, the audience is introduced to the film’s next main character, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), as he’s being arrested. Chigurh is the exact representation of evil that Bell is referring to, and it is after his psychopathic bloodlust is displayed that Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles into the story. While hunting, Moss finds the scene of a drug deal gone bad, trucks and bodies scattered about, resembling an ambushed wagon train. After Moss’ careful inspection, he locates the missing bag of cash that was supposed to be part of the failed transaction, and attempts run with it. Little does he know Chigurh’s determination to find the money, and little does he know Chigurgh’s twisted menace. All the while, a ruminating Sherriff Bell is desperate to find Moss in hopes of sparing his life.
The Coen Brothers’ masterpiece won four Oscars that year: Best Picture, Best Director (Joel & Ethan Coen), Best Adapted Screenplay (Joel & Ethan Coen), and Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem). The film is a quiet two hours, with cinematography and editing that extends the tension further. The Coen Brothers have become known for their ability to take geographical locations and impose upon the viewer the environment of that landscape. When watching FARGO, viewers can’t help but feel the icy wind amid the stark whiteness; NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN had very much the same goal in mind.
Longtime cinematographer and collaborator with the Coens, Roger Deakins said in a 2007 interview with Eye On Cinema, that conveying the heat of the desert was a desired effect for the film. They were able to achieve this by having large amounts of contrast between interior and exteriors. He cites an instance of this near the end of the film when a conversation inside a shack occurs. They “wanted the feeling of a very dark interior while, there is a very blinding light outside, but still able to read detail in the landscape outside the window, to actually feel the heat.” It’s an interesting experiment, and his lighting choices of leaning heavily on yellows and blondes helps to convey this effect. Even at night the majority of the lighting is also a striking streetlight orange over packed yellow dust against blackness. The audience is never allowed to forget that that this is an old fashioned Western man- hunt. As a side note, if any cinematographers are ever curious as to how Deakins has pulled off some of his breath- taking shots, he has a forum at rogerdeakins.com where he actually answers filmmakers questions about lighting, framing, equipment, etc. and has even answered questions specific to NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.
As effective as the visceral imagery on screen is, the sound or lack thereof in the film is imperative to its tone. While having very long instances of absolutely no dialogue and minimal sound in a film was nothing new at the time, the entire piece is a case study in how effective sound is to storytelling in film, and how easily it can go unnoticed. There is really no soundtrack to speak of, and what does exist, a mere sixteen minutes, is only to serve up more tension. At the same time, what is used is very unusual. Carter Burwell, composer, and Skip Lievsay, sound editor, have collaborated with the Coens for much of their career, as well. In a joint interview of all four of them for The New York Times, in 2008, Burwell stated “that most musical instruments didn’t fit with the minimalist sound sculpture he had in mind, so he used singing bowls.” What’s also an interesting note is during a suspenseful and quiet scene where Chigurh is accosting a gas station attendant, Burwell also admitted that they “tuned the music’s swelling hum to the 60-hertz frequency of a refrigerator” in the same interview. While these probably aren’t things an average viewer is going to pick up on immediately, the effect is subconsciously off- putting, and really does lend to viewers’ uneasiness. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN shows filmmakers what can be achieved when the sound editor and composer work together to elicit an emotion from viewers and how sound editing and composing can actually go hand-in-hand if done effectively.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is one of the Coens’ best films and rings of authenticity. Even casting Tommy Lee Jones was a specific choice due not only to age, but also due to the fact he is actually from San Saba, Texas, and would really understood the community and psychology surrounding the dog-tired Sherriff he plays. Aside from also finding actual local talent to push the credibility of the piece, there is something about this film that makes it so good, but is hard to place. Interestingly enough, it is Bill Hader who has put the best explanation forward in a 2019 podcast entitled The Rewatchables. Podcast hosts Bill Simmons and Chris Ryan sit down with a weekly guest and they dissect, scene-by-scene, one of the guest’s favorite films. Hader choosing the Coens’ masterpiece, mentions that the violence in the film is so well- done due to the fact that while “it is not glamorized, it is still cinematic.” Although Hader is speaking to the film’s visceral and unflinching treatment of violence specifically, the same can be applied to the entirety of the piece. In fact, going through archived articles of the film’s reception, not a single major magazine or critic had a negative review of the film, despite its bloody and truly reflexive moments.
If it possible to categorize a film as “perfect,” then NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is the possibly one of the closest contenders ever made. Its meaning is poetic, true to a McCarthy piece, but is not lost on its audience. Instead the Coen Brothers have placed the film’s meaning directly at the viewers’ feet, right from the start. Because of this, the film truly relies their poetic, yet direct storytelling style to enrapture the audience. With help of their longtime collaborators in cinematography and in sound/ music, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN really shows what can be achieved when a filmmaking team has a common stylistic goal, and are welcoming to new ideas, and open to working together to create a truly cohesive piece.