No Country for Old Men (Coen, Coen, 2007)

 

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In the opening voice-over of Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country For Old Men, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) reflects on the crucial battle between old and new, honor and brutality. The law man remembers a boy he sent to the electric chair who confesses his predetermination to kill even when the newspapers call it a crime of passion. This conflict with the changing nature of violence lies at the heart of the Coen’s quiet and disturbing crime film, a theme which plays out quite literally though the first half, then transcends the image through off-screen violence and solitude by the end. Adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, No Country for Old Men follows Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) as he happens upon a drug deal gone bad while hunting in the West Texas desert. Bodies, shell casings, guns, and drugs litter the site, but most importantly Moss finds a satchel of money, some two million dollars. Of course he takes the cash and in turn reaps the wrath of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a relentless serial killer sent to reacquire the missing funds. Somewhat underused until the end, Bell follows Chirguth and Moss’ trail of violence with a sense of impending doom, striking up the aforementioned philosophical dilemma. No Country for Old Men moves seamlessly between the three lead characters, forming a triangle of apprehension with plot and character. The Coen’s seem to be obsessed with the former in the opening acts, using Roger Deakins’ masterful cinematography to open up the wide vistas of the Texas skyline and the fleeting ways characters attempt to move within it. However, the Coen’s then shift beautifully to an emphasis on the latter, highlighting the breaking codes of Western mythology through the destruction of key familiar elements, the deconstruction of cinematic expectations. The foundation for heroism, as Bell has questioned the entire film, seems to be rotting away from the inside. Those sworn to protect the innocent have become unable to comprehend the validity of those willing to instantly kill. So maybe the archetypes have changed more than the times. We expect different things from our heroes, our villains, and the innocent bystanders who normally watch from the sidelines. In the scary world of No Country for Old Men, the Coen’s get to exercise their comedy demons for a calm, eerie slice of brutal Americana, a place haunted by the prevailing winds of violence, where a coin flip could become the most important moment in your life, or death.
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