DVD Releases: ‘No Country for Old Men’

After more than twenty years of producing highly intelligent, absurd, dark and hilarious independent movies, Joel and Ethan Coen finally struck Academy gold with their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s bestseller No Country for Old Men (2007). The brothers’ only previous Oscar wins had been for Fargo (1995), which took home the awards for Original Screenplay and Best Actress (thanks to Frances McDormand’s pitch-perfect performance as lead Marge Gunderson).

However, No Country surpassed all expectation taking Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem), Adapted Screenplay, and the big two: Best Director and Best Picture. In my personal opinion, No Country was the single Best Picture winner of the last decade that was actually the best film released that year.

Revisiting roughly the same characterisations and themes with which the Coens have defined their career, No Country for Old Men is a Western/crime thriller hybrid set on the Texan/Mexican border at the end of the 1970s. Vietnam veteran Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon a collection of corpses in the desert: a heroin deal gone badly wrong. Moss takes the money, but it quickly becomes apparent that he’s not the only one who wants it. Unfortunately for Moss, one of the interested parties has sent cold-blooded killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) to reclaim their wares, in turn tracked by the film’s narrator Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones, in a career-best performance).

No Country’s tagline is simple – “There are no clean getaways” – and this provides the perfect summary of the film’s fatalist approach. Life is unfair, and unforgiving, something that the Coens have illustrated in the majority of their previous films. However, unlike The Big Lebowski (1998) or Fargo, the unfair world of No Country does not elicit laughter but rather throws the dangerous, deadly events into evermore terrifying relief.

McCarthy’s infamously sparse prose is translated with ease and power into visual brilliance by the Coens, who have now arguably succeeded in establishing themselves as the most talented and original filmmakers in the US (let alone prolific; in the 26 years since the release of Blood Simple (1984) they have directed 17 films, and written several more). McCarthy tells his story with a tailored language designed for each of his three leads, a complexity that the Coens do not attempt to mimic. They do instead trim down the already lean material of the book into one of the edgiest, most nihilistic thrillers of the century, if not all time.

Astonishing cinematic technique aside, No Country features several fantastic performances from its ensemble: Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones embody Moss and Sheriff Bell with such consummate grit that one could almost believe that McCarthy had created the characters with these actors in mind. Woody Harrelson’s laconic hitman Carson Wells dazzles in his brief appearances. The real star though is undoubtedly Bardem as principled killer Chigurh. A remorseless psychotic, he’s not merely a hit-man but a self-styled agent of destiny, at times leaving his victim’s survival down to the simple toss of a coin.

Infinitely open to repeat viewing, No Country for Old Men is one of the most exhilarating cinematic experiences, and one of the finest literary adaptations of recent years – an absolute masterpiece.

David Sugarman