No Country for Old Men

I got a new stereo installed in my car on Friday, so I can plug the iPod in directly rather than using one of those stupid FM transmitter gadgets, and the installation guy said it would take a few hours. So I did a little shopping, and then went to see the Coen Brothers' adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men.

The one-sentence review is basically "Just like Fargo, only set in Texas and not funny." As with any Coen Brothers movie, it's beautifully done on a technical level-- the camera work is great, the shots are set up very well. There's great acting as well, particularly from Tommy Lee Jones as Frances McDormand-- I mean, Sherrif Ed Tom Bell, and Javier Bardem as the psycho hit man Anton Chigurh.

It's not exactly an uplifting story, though you got that from "Coen Brothers" and "Cormac McCarthy" above. Plot spoilers below the fold, so click through at your own risk.

The story is pretty much straight noir: Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin) is out hunting, and runs across the remnants of a drug deal gone bad. There's a truckload a dope, a bunch of dead bodies, and a little ways away, a dead man with a satchel containing $2 million. There's also a dying man, who asks Moss for water. He takes the money, but wakes up in the middle of the night feeling guilty about not giving water to the dying man, so he goes back to the scene with a jug of water, and some of the parties to the original deal show up and chase him away, leaving his truck in the desert.

He sends his wife to hide with her mother in Odessa, and goes on the run, pursued by the implacable Anton Chigurh, who kills just about everybody he meets in the movie. Meanwhile, Tommy Lee Jones is investigating the killings in the desert, and dispensing folksy wisdom.

This is fairly standard noir/ action movie fodder, and in a typical story, you would expect a showdown between Chigurh and Moss, or Chigurh and Bell, or possibly Bell and Moss. Instead, the principals never meet-- Moss and Chigurh blast away at each other, and talk on the phone, but never come face-to-face (at least not on-screen), and Bell narrowly avoids running into Chigurh at one point, but they never meet or talk. Chigurh cuts a bloody swath across west Texas, and Moss gives him a good chase, but in the end, everybody but the psycho killer and the sherrif ends up dead.

It's an odd take on a fairly typical noir plot (Kate asked "Why would anybody want to make a movie of that?" when I described it, and I pointed out that there are dozens of books and movies with the same basic "lowlife finds large sum of illicit cash, and everything goes pear-shaped" plot outline). The attraction of this particular movie is not so much the story as the acting and filmmaking. Bardem is brilliantly creepy, and Jones turns in a great performance as an aging lawman who's watching the world go to hell (so he thinks) and powerless to do anything about it. The Coens, as always, have a great way of making fairly stage-y dialogue feel real (though there's still a little of their characteristically uneasy relationship with class issues), and the shots of the barren Texas landscape have a certain stark beauty.

I haven't read the book, or anything else by McCarthy, but I understand that he's noted as something of a literary stylist. In that respect, the Coens are probably a perfect choice to adapt the book, being noted for fairly stylized films themselves. The fixation on small details-- there are more shots of people turning screws in this movie than you usually see in a year-- and the utter lack of incidental music combine to give it a great sense of tension, even when nothing in particular is happening.

This is an excellent movie, if you like this sort of thing. It's not cheery holiday fare, though, so don't go in expecting to have your spirits lifted.


More like this

I watched every Coen brothers movie. - By David Haglund - Slate Magazine "My opinion changed later--not of each of those films (not entirely), but of the Coens' work as a whole. Before coming to that reversal, though, I think it's worth sitting for a moment with that earlier reaction. A lot of…
For the first time since I don't know when, Kate and I have gone to see movies in a theater on two consecutive weekends. I'm pretty sure this hasn't happened in at least two years. Anyway, before my general (spoiler-free) movie comments, some trailers: You Don't Mess With the Zohan. Seriously, this…
Thanks to Fishy Fred for tracking down Bravo's list of the top 100 comedy movies of all time. I caught part of it and wanted to comment on the list. For the most part, I thought the list was abysmal. Four Weddings and a Funeral no higher than 96? Preposterous. Dr. Strangelove only at 53? No way.…
I had intended last Wednesday's post on the Many-Worlds variant in Robert Charles Wilson's Divided by Infinity to be followed by a post on the other things I said when I did a guest lecture on it for an English class. What with one thing and another, though, I got a little distracted, and I'm only…

So who got the money? And what was the deal with the scene in the crime-tape hotel room?

I'm not sure about the money. The scene in the crime-tape room was Tommy Lee Jones realizing that Chigurh was crazy enough to go back to the crime scene looking for the money (which there wasn't any sign of at the scene), and going to the room looking for him. When he saw the unscrewed heating vent, he realized that Chigurh had been and gone (though he was actually hiding in the next room over), so he went home.

I'm not sure whether he got the money or not (he may have, given the bill that he gave the kids in the last scene), but I think that's what the sherrif assumed.

I suspected the jacked-up truck racing away from the hotel had the cash, because Chigurh didn't carry anything away from his car wreck. I also had the impression that Chigurh was behind the front door when Tommy Lee Jones went back to the hotel, and didn't understand why he didn't dispatch with the sheriff like he did everyone else.
Great movie, though. I can't imagine living in the West Texas the Coen brothers portray, drug deals or not.

There were two rooms sealed off with crime-scene tape. Tommy Lee Jones went into one, but Chigurh was in the other (there were a couple of shots of Chirgurh hiding behind the door with his big gun). When Tommy Lee Jones saw the removed grate on the air duct, though, he assumed that Chigurh had gotten away with the money, so he left without checking the other room. Chigurh would've killed him if he'd gone in the other room.

I'm not sure about the money, one way or the other. There's clearly been some time between the shootout at the hotel and Chigurh's visit to Moss's wife, so I don't think the fact that he's not carrying the satchel means anything-- he could've gotten the money, and hidden it elsewhere, or put it in a bank, or something.

Thanks for the review. I won't waste my time on the movie.

I do find it encouraging that there is an utter lack of incidental music. Adding music to soundtracks was a stupid idea back when silent movies gave way to talkies.

By Gilipollas Caraculo (not verified) on 16 Dec 2007 #permalink

I thought the first 80% was brilliant, and the diffuse ending was a completely lame cop-out. It was like having several threads running, and instead of tying them together, they were frayed out at the end. I've seen near universal praise for this film, but I wouldn't call what amounts to a narrative non-sequitur as artistic...I'd call it crappy story-telling.

I read one of McCarthy's novels, "All the Pretty Horses". Depressing crap passing for literature these days.

How did they handle the $2 million in cash? That's a large volume of "non sequential, unmarked" bills even in Ben Franklins (who, by the way, is not a dead president). Let's see. Click click click. Yeah, that's going to be one damned big "satchel".

The reason this comes to mind is because there's a guy claiming that he's arranged for the crown prince of Saudi Arabia to buy our ethanol plant from us with a down payment of $17 million in cash, LOL. I suppose he could use 1000 euro notes...

According to this, $2 million in 100 dollar bills would weigh about 20kg. I seem to recall a scene where Josh Brolin threw the case over a fence one-handed while nursing an abdominal wound...

"I read one of McCarthy's novels, 'All the Pretty Horses'. Depressing crap passing for literature these days."

I read 'All the Pretty Horses' -- and it was stylistically and descriptively brilliant. Depressing? Say, how about the endings of 'Hamlet' and "Romeo and Juliet'? Crap? I thought not.

So I read No Country for Old Men. Also brilliant. My wife couldn't get through it. Shiela Finch gave a wonderful panel presentation on Writing the Historic Novel at a Westercon. She singled out Cormac McCarthy as violating an implicit rule. There are a few passages in Spanish, relevant in 'All the Pretty Horses' when the two main Americans in Mexico hear those passages, and one can understand Spanish, and the other could not. So Shiela, not speaking Spanish, skipped over those passages. later she realized that they had plot-essential data in them, and felt badly cheated.

I have not seen the new movie, nor have a yet read THE ROAD: A Novel, by Cormac McCarthy, Knopf, 2006, 241 pp. $24. I expect that I shall, in paperback. I wonder if, in his bleak post-apocalyptic vision he has reinvented the wheel well, or badly, compared to all the previous treatments by explicitly Science Fictional authors.

Anyone care to give us their opinion here?

According to the book (which I have not red) the mob gets the money. The Charming Chigurh brings the case (which he got out of the duct) to the main mafiosi and comments there is about 100k less becuase he had some expenses. The flustered mobster asks "who are you?" and Chigurth says " I am here to establish my bonafide as an expert in a difficult field. I can be trusted."

He also whacks the girl (poor her, she eventually agreed to a coin flip). There is a hint he got the money when he pays the boys with a fresh looking (yet slightly bloodied) $100 bill.

There is a great discussion about the movie at

I use this movie critic every time, to check on a movie before we are going to spend 9 bucks on it - but in this case I did not like the movie, especially the ending - it was a letdown. And too vague. I think Coens are tryin to be too Artfull and Serious and Subtle here - and I think it works better for them when they take on a dead-serious stuff a make it over-the-top or deadpan.

I happen to really like the ending, as it emphasizes the point that there won't be any resolution to the violence, that dreams and simply retiring, Sheriff Bell does, are perhaps how one best deals with a world that creates a monster like Chigurh. What would you want, a showdown in which Chigurh gets what's coming to him? That would contradict one of the themes of the film, which is that the violence is simply inevitable and continues unabated and unexplained.

Anyone looking to really get a hint of how brilliant Cormac McCarthy is should read Blood Meridian; it is an amazing, beautifully written book.

a friend and I saw this movie, and both had the same feelings as chads post. Only thing I would like to add is about the ending, we both felt it applied to the life/violence is random and uncontrollable.

I had intended to do a post on this film, but you've saved me the trouble. My reaction was the same as yours on all counts. Blood Simple might be a more apt comparison than Fargo, though.