No Country For Old Men DVD review

Spoilers ahoy, as Jack checks out the Coen Brothers' Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men on DVD...

The Oscar-winning Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men

This is a film about how fate need intervene only once to set in place a course of events that will completely change someone’s life, and how some when set on a path will follow the process through to the bitter end come what may. Right from the off, No Country For Old Men feels lawless and terrifying.  Set in 1980 and played out in the expansive landscape of West Texas and Mexico, the film follows three men in pursuit of each other.

At the centre is Chigurh (a name ironically pronounced so that it is pretty much indistinguishable from the word “sugar”), a pathological hitman, played with startling intensity and a truly creepy haircut by Javier Bardem.  Chigurh’s life seems punctuated by bouts of brutal murder which he justifies to himself by viewing them as acts of fate, rather than of his own volition.  In one crucial early scene a garage owner escapes death simply because the coin that Chigurh flips (and which he explains to the potential victim has been travelling for twenty-two years to reach that point) happens to land heads side up.  So disconnected is Chigurh from his crimes, that later on we witness him nonchalantly raise his feet off the ground so that his shoes don’t get covered in the blood of one of his victims.

The film’s other two protagonists, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) find their fates redirected by Chigurh’s slipstream.  At the beginning of the film Moss happens to come across a drug deal gone wrong and makes off with a discarded satchel containing $2 million.  Chigurh is hired to retrieve the satchel, while the Sheriff attempts to override fate’s authority by bringing man’s law to bear on the situation.

The ensuing cat-and-mouse chase takes us into areas that mainstream cinema seldom wanders. Wrinkled, sweat stained bedsheets and threadbare sofas, not to mention authentically blood strewn visceral crime scenes, feed an underlying sense of menace, and induce a shocking sense of realism.  The almost complete lack of any kind of non-diegetic soundtrack is effective to, ensuring that once the film sets off on its grisly course there is to be no let up.  

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A substantial amount of time is devoted to the three protagonists putting in place their tactics for survival; be it Chigurh systematically working though Moss’s phone bill in an attempt to track him down, the elaborate lengths Moss goes to in order to hide his booty in a motel air vent, or even Sheriff Bell contemplating his next move over a glass of milk.  Although no screen time is shared between the three men, it is clear their lives are being shaped by the consequences of the others’ actions.  

This focus on methodology and preparation makes their relationships seem somehow closer.  The scene with Moss in a darkened motel room with gun firmly clasped, waiting for Chigurh to come in resonates with a weird kind of sexual intimacy, strangely heightened by the fact that Chigurh walks the motel corridor without any shoes on.

The fate of all three men is ultimately to be decided off-screen.  Moss is slain by Mexicans in a scene, that we never get to see, save for its bloody aftermath.  His death then leads on to perhaps the most pivotal scene in the film, which strangely sees a confrontation not between men, but between man and woman.  

Having returned from her mother’s funeral, Moss’ widow Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) is confronted by Chigurh, intent on carrying through a threat to kill her that he made to Moss.  For Chigurh, such promises exist  with context or caveat and even though killing Carla Jean now serves no purpose, Chigurh’s bond with fate is so strong that he feels he must scrupulously follow that promise to its end.

As with the garage owner, Carla Jean is offered a chance of escape through a coin toss.  But she refuses to let a random factor determine her destiny.  “The coin don’t have no say”, she explains to Chigurh “it’s just you.”  We don’t ever learn what becomes of her, although the implication is strongly made in the way in which Chigurh inspects his shoes as he leaves the house.  However, Carla Jean’s refusal to let fate decree, bestows on her a kind of transcendent dignity that eludes most of the other characters in the film.

In fact, random fate intervenes once again at the conclusion of the film, as Chigurh is involved in a car crash, completely unrelated to the rest of the story.   He leaves the screen walking off into the distance nursing a broken arm, seemingly reinforced in his belief that his life is to be forever at the whim of random chance.

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In many respects it’s an entirely unsatisfying conclusion, but one that thematically at least is tied up at the end by Sheriff Bell’s recounting to his wife of two enigmatic dreams.  As a device to underscore No Country For Old Men’s main concerns it shouldn’t work; dreams in fictions are dangerously indulgent devices that allow the author to impart whatever they want without having to work for it, but Tommy Lee Jones’ performance, and the striking oddness that he describes of seeing his father as a younger man than he, make for a strangely haunting and eloquent, if muted conclusion.

Having never been much of an admirer of the Coen Brothers’ previous films, finding them a bit too preoccupied with establishing with the audience a shared knowledge of genre, No Country For Old Men is something of a revelation.  There is a determination and clear-sightedness to this film that makes it a rugged, intense, but hugely rewarding experience.

DVD Extras: I’ve never been much of an admirer of most DVD extras either.  Although in principle they are a great idea, they by and large consist of a pretty fluffy “Making of…” feature and sundry other bits and pieces, all of which extol the expertise of the cast and crew.  The three features on this DVD, pretty much adhere to this pattern, although there is thankfully less here than on most releases regarding how the special effects were staged, which means we are saved from sitting through interminable shots of crew members yelling “There’s going to be a bang”, and such like.  

What is notably missing from these extras is something that delves into the original source material, or focuses on why the Coen Brothers chose to shoot certain scenes in certain ways.  Such a dark film seems to warrant more of an analysis of its themes and images then offered here.

Still, if you are really desperate to revel in No Country For Old Men for a little longer, these extras are diverting enough.

The Film:

4 out of 5
The Extras:
3 out of 5

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Rating:

3 out of 5