See it? Yes, but first understand what you’re getting into (keep reading).
I don’t know how movie trailers are made, but I envision a bunch of marketing types in suits sitting in a boardroom brainstorming on how a movie should be pitched to audiences. After a bunch of whiteboarding and a few lattes, guys half their age wearing tee shirts and headphones go off to their Macs to make the vision a reality. There are a few iterations until the suits are happy at which point the trailer gets shipped off. The end result is often a work of art in and of itself, even though it most likely has very little to do with the movie it’s supposed to be advertising. Trailers, after all, are marketing material designed to sell a movie. They are not designed to help viewers pick movies that are right for them. The purpose of trailer is to convince as many people as possible to see a movie as quickly as possible before word can spread about how crappy the movie actually is.
(If you have any doubts about the ability of a trailer to misrepresent a movie, just watch the preview for this wonderfully inspirational family film called Shining.)
My point is that No Country For Old Men is an excellent movie that, as its hart, is almost nothing like its trailer suggests. So misleading are the previews, in fact, that at least two people in the theater actually booed the ending. I admit to being somewhat confused by how the story ended myself (think Sopranos), however by the time I got to my car, it had sunk in enough that I thought I understood it. By the time I got home, I really liked it. And by the time I finished explaining the movie to my wife, I loved it and already wanted to watch it again.
I’ll start with the easy points. The writing is great. The dialog is simultaneously fun, colorful, and eerie. The monologue at the beginning masterfully written and delivered by Tommy Lee Jones. And the acting and characters are, without exception, nearly flawless.
Now for the plot (don’t worry — no spoilers yet). No Country For Old Men is essentially about a drug deal that somehow goes south, a man who mistakenly comes across the money (Llewelyn Moss), and the attempt of a psychopathic killer (Anton Chigurh) to hunt him down. On the periphery, you have an old Texas Sheriff (Tom Bell) who is more trying to make sense of the violence than actually solve the case, and a combination hit man and bounty hunter (Carson Wells) who is hired to intervene. But don’t confuse the plot with the meaning. As far as I can tell, there are no real heroes in No Country. There is no crescendo which builds up to a climax from which the good guys triumphantly walk away. In fact, I’m not entirely sure there are really any good guys. There is only misdirection and unpredictability, which I believe are the primary themes of the movie.
Now I think it’s only fair that I issue a spoiler alert as I have to give a few things away in order to delve further into the meaning of the movie. However, I guarantee that you’ll appreciate No Country far more with your expectations properly set.
The title of the movie clearly relates to the Sheriff, and to most of the other law enforcement officers in the story. Although Bell is certainly a sharp investigator, he is completely unprepared for the relentless violence of drug related crime. Not only are the Sheriff and his deputies outgunned, but the bad guys seem to be playing by an entirely different set of rules which allow them to stay one step ahead. Although you want the Sheriff to confront and defeat Chigurh, you never really feel like that’s a realistic scenario. The meaning of the title is contained in the opening monolog as the Sheriff says, "The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure."
But there’s much more to the movie than an old man coming to terms with his retirement. To me, the movie felt like it was more about the unpredictable, unfair, and arbitrary nature of our lives, a theme that is both played out repeatedly, and even explicitly discussed. For instance, while Llewelyn hides out at a hotel in El Paso, a girl by the pool notices that he keeps looking out his window. She later has the opportunity to flirt with him, and asks him what he’s looking for. He tells her he’s just watching for what’s coming, at which point she casually responds that you never see what’s coming.
In another scene, the Sheriff is talking with Llewelyn’s wife in a diner, and tells her a story about a rancher who failed to kill a cow cleanly on his first attempt. He decides to put a bullet in the cows head to end it quickly, but since the cow is thrashing about, the rancher misses and the bullet glances the cows head, ricochets around the metal room, and lodges itself in the rancher’s arm. The Sheriff solemnly tells Llewelyn’s wife that even between man and cattle, nothing is certain.
Interestingly, during the same conversation, the Sheriff mentions that cattle are killed with a pneumatic rod now which is much more predictable. One of Chigurh favorite tools is a pneumatic cattle gun which he uses both for killing people, and for blowing locks. The Sheriff never makes the connection between his own story, and a recent murder caused by a deep head wound which was assumed to be from a gun until no bullet was found. It was as though the possibility of something so inhuman wouldn’t even register with him.
The hit man Carson Wells is another device the movie uses to demonstrate unpredictability. Carson comes across as a hotshot who isn’t the least bit intimidated by Chigurh, and manages to track down Llewelyn in a matter of hours. Just when it looks like the dynamic of the hunt is about to change, Chigurh happens to get the drop on Carson, and removes him from the story as suddenly as he was introduced. The audience is sure that Carson can’t be killed so quickly, and that his impact on the story can’t possibly be so minimal, yet he is instantly and unapologetically executed as Chigurh casually reaches for a ringing phone.
And then as if to demonstrate the point literally, there’s Chigurh’s technique of sometimes deciding whether to let someone live based solely on a coin toss. A gas station owner, who is unaware of the extent to which he is in danger, wins the toss after which Chigurh tells him keep the quarter. He tells the man who has narrowly escaped being brutally murdered to put his lucky quarter someplace special. Don’t mix it in with the rest of the change in his pocket, Chigurh warns, even though in reality, it’s just another quarter. From this scene comes one of the eeriest lines of the entire movie: "What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss."
Throughout the entire movie, Chigurh seems to be the only one who is in control. In fact, he comes across as the master of everyone’s fate. He is eerily calm and in control whether he is strangling a deputy with handcuffs, stitching up his own gun wounds, or slaughtering people with his cattle gun or silenced twelve gauge. But in one final demonstration of the randomness of the universe, while driving down a completely calm and quiet suburban street, Chigurh is T-boned at an intersection and sustains serious injuries, including a compound fracture of his arm. He tries to gather the strength to flee the scene, but as the sirens rapidly close in, you get the distinct feeling that even the one man who seemed to control everything couldn’t see what was coming.