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No Country For Old Men

No wonder cowboys get the blues. Nicola Mostyn is gripped by the Coen brothers’ meditative thriller

Published on January 18th 2008.

No Country For Old Men

The combination of one of America’s foremost storytellers, Cormac McCarthy, and the formidable directing duo that is the Coen brothers was always going to be a heady one and this adaptation from McCarthy’s 2003 novel is as rich and dark an offering as you might expect.

This is a visually satisfying, visceral film, with Texas presented in gloriously brutal detail; dusty, cruel and seductive.

No Country For Old Men is set in Texas in the 1980s, a pivotal time when the grandeur of the American West has given way to a more brutal, lawless way of life. From the opening scenes the unforgiving landscape dominates and threatens. But underlying the menace of the land itself is something even more unsettling, revealed as we follow Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin, Grindhouse), a hunter who stumbles across a drug deal gone awry, a scene of carnage and death from which he takes a case containing two million dollars.

It’s an action which Moss hopes will change his life, and that of his wife, Carla Jean. And indeed it does as Moss is soon being tracked by two men; the sinister Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) who is determined to retrieve the money and exact the necessary punishment and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) a tough, good-hearted law-enforcement officer who is disillusioned by the changes he has seen come over the place he loves.

This is a visually satisfying, visceral film, with Texas presented in gloriously brutal detail; dusty, cruel and seductive. Onto this backdrop are placed three central characters as complex and compelling as the territory they inhabit. Moss is a cool-headed, determined ex Vietnam vet, played with calm intensity by Brolin. Tommy Lee Jones is perfect for the role of Sheriff Bell, his face seeming to show every hurt as the Sheriff who is heartbroken that, despite all his efforts, the place he has fought to protect has changed and outgrown him.

Indeed, as the title suggests, this is Bell’s story, or at least the story of the land, and Bell’s disenchantment is central to the plot, highlighting the major theme - that the West is no longer a place for heroes and glory but has been overtaken by drug running and death.

Despite this deliberate channelling of the focus, one’s attention is irrevocably drawn to Anton Chigurh, a fascinating, chilling villain who pursues Moss with the single-mindedness of a missile but who is just human enough to be deeply frightening. Javier Bardem is excellent - horribly hypnotic as the determined assassin, a stoical lunatic who lives by his own code of retribution from which no-one can escape.

With those three characters plus Woody Harrelson thrown in as bounty hunter Carson Wells there’s a whole lot of testosterone going on in this film and it is to her credit that Kelly MacDonald (Trainspotting) holds her own and shines as Llewelyn’s devoted, anxious wife.

As the chase continues in a languid, sinister style, the matter-of-fact violence keeps No Country humming along with a sort of insidious nervousness, offset by a dark and gritty humour which is hugely enjoyable. The Coens’ intelligent, no spoon-feeding style means there are also several confusing lose ends which, thankfully, don’t detract from the overall effect.

This is not a straight thriller but it feels like one for a while. There is a slightly bumpy transition as No Country heads down a slightly different path and loses some of the tension as the film cashes in its momentum to become something more meditative. Ultimately, though, it is a worthwhile trade off to create this evocative and memorable piece of cinema.

Rating: 8/10

No Country For Old Men is released on Friday

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