a harsh story for a harsh country
**Note: some mild, non-disruptive spoilers. They won't disturb your film watching experience.**
So this past week I went to see No Country for Old Men, and I was completely blown away. I do love a Western and a suspenseful thriller, and this film was a nice blending of both. Right up front I should say that this is a brutal, harsh, bloody movie. Its story is a reflection of the country in which it is set. But it is completely brilliant. The film is not as much of a western in the epic sense as, say, 3.10 to Yuma or High Noon mostly because it is more of a tragedy than an epic; nevertheless, it is a true western in every other way.
There are three characters who anchor this tale; three characters are this tale.
The tone is set and held by the narrator, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, played by a weighty Tommy Lee Jones. He is unruffled, calculating and no-nonsense. Little startles him in this film. I expect this is because of all he has seen. He knows the nature of evil, but becomes overwhelmed by its persistence and senselessness. Bell's opening monologue leads us gently into the brutal story by mentioning the sheriffs of the past. He notes that some of the "old timers" didn't even carry sidearms, and that one can't help but compare oneself to the "old timers" and wonder how one measures up. Throughout the movie, Bell becomes the center of gravity around which the chaotic violence and suspense circles. He is not merely the compass for the story itself, but also for the morality expressed in the story. He not only sees with great clarity the division between good and evil, but he also understands the overwhelming strength that evil brings to bear as we go along. Hence, while the "old timers" didn't all wear sidearms, Bell most certainly does. He laments the senseless evil that he sees in his county now: particularly the drug running and the deaths that occur due to the drug running. Perhaps the most senseless of all evil stories is the focus of this movie.
The protagonist of the story is Llewelyn Moss, played by Josh Brolin. Moss is a Vietnam vet who is as hard-edged and rough as the country to which he has returned. He is a cowboy: a self-reliant loner who is both independent and loyal to his young wife, he doesn't seek out the action that finds him. Moss is out hunting when he stumbles across the scene that will change his life: a drug deal gone bad. Yet, it isn't the decision to take the $2 million left behind that is the truly pivotal one. The decision that seals his destiny is the one he makes because he can't sleep that night. He decides to go back to take water to the one dealer left alive and gravely wounded. This decision spurs the turn of the rest of the movie. This decision was inevitable for the cowboy, however. His innate sense of justice and rightness cannot be denied. There can be no other outcome to his struggle. He is a man of character, and throughout the film he strives to maintain that character while doing what he believe best for his wife first, and then himself.
Opposite to Moss we find the antagonist, Anton Chigurh, played masterfully by Javier Bardem. Chirgurh is the ultimate villain: exact, purposeful, conscienceless. Chigurh is possibly the simplest and most complex of the three characters at the same time. He appears to have no motivation for killing other than the principle of fulfilling some sort of twisted duty, and displays no remorse for the killings. Except once, it seems. Chigurh seems able to belay his conscience by laying off his non-contract killings on a coin. By commanding his potential victims to call it, he shifts the accountability for the deaths to the victims. Chigurh has no place for mercy; it is not part of his world. He is a frightening villain; one that shakes Sheriff Bell to his core. Relentless and dark, Chigurh himself is a cowboy, not the anti-cowboy one might expect. He is the Dark Cowboy, the cowboy led solely by his evil nature, applying his principle to the darkness.
The story itself is stunning, real and complex. Throughout we are subtly and blatantly reminded that no matter the plan, fate intrudes unexpectedly; that nothing is certain. Everything that happens shoves that home to the viewer. Even the ending shocks the viewer with its harsh, unrelenting loyalty to this theme. If we are warned that one mistake can destroy a life, the irony of this tale is that the truly destructive mistakes are made by others than those who end up destroyed. The decisions and mistakes of this movie are small, almost momentary, but their effects are shattering. There is no moment of redemption in this Western; no showdown between the good cowboy and the evil one. That would be inconsistent with the tragedy of this tale. This truly is a country that, as one character puts it, wears a man down. This character reminds Bell that what he's fighting--the evil, the uncertainty--is nothing new, perhaps he just has nothing left for the fight, anymore. Bell admits that he has always hoped for some deus-ex-machina appearance of God, and has found only disappointment. He understands God's apparent absence, though, since he admits that if he were God, he would stay away from a man like himself. It is an interesting admission of sin and failure in the eyes of Who God is. Yet, despite this apparent desolation, Bell's final monologue is perhaps more hope-filled than his character realizes. It hints that though his soul cannot find true rest due to the absence of justice in this life, there will be rest farther on. We are left with thoughts of the very nature of evil, of the fight against it here, of the forms in which it presents itself, and of the eventual end thereof.
This is not a film that wraps things up with a neat bow. It is not a film that answers questions so much as raises them for the audience to ponder. Bell's presence infuses us with a sense of what ought to be while contrasting that with what is in front of us. He himself leaves us with the sense that this world can never be right; that eventually even the whitest of White Hats will grow weary of the battle against evil; that true rest will not be found while we tread this Country. This film is not for the faint of heart: as I mentioned, it is bloody, brutal, violent and dark. It is a work of art that seeks to examine the nature of humanity. It raises all the right questions, and wisely, leaves us without any easy answers.