In which Hannah watches… No Country for Old Men

The abiding question: is this or is this not a Coen Brothers film? No Country for Old Men is one of two I keep forgetting that they made, despite the fact it won them a best picture Oscar (the other is True Grit).

It is astonishingly beautiful and incredibly rich, but it doesn’t quite feel like one of theirs. It looks like one of theirs, it’s dark like one of theirs, but it doesn’t sound like one of theirs, with the sparseness of the dialogue. But then, it is as much Cormac McCarthy’s film as theirs – and his dialogue is equally distinctive, just as the opposite end of the verbosity scale.

It might be one of the best – if not the best film they’ve made, but I’m not sure if call it Their Best Film.

Some highlights for me…
The night time chase of Llewelyn Moss is remarkably tense, without overdoing it. I like that Llewelyn isn’t a moron. He may not be book smart, but he’s capable and knows what he’s up to. He’s just outmatched – although Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) is impressed that Llewelyn has faced off with Chigurgh once and survived.

‘You shouldn’t be doing that’
‘Doing what?’
‘Hitchhiking. ‘S dangerous.’

– Slightly less dangerous than Chigurgh, Mr Man who picked up a hitchhiker.

Once again in a Coen film we have a police department which are generally pretty good at their jobs. Wendell (Garrett Dillahunt) is just a little slow, but he’s trying. Perhaps more importantly they’re decent people. Watching Fargo and this makes me realise how rare it is to find a US film where a the cops aren’t (a) barely redeemable scumbags or (b) overly valourised heroes who are allowed to get away with dramatic abuses of power.

‘You can’t stop what’s coming… That’s humanity’

As well as being the villain of the piece, existentially Chigurgh is pretty much the living embodiment of death catching up with the Sheriff in his last days on the job facing a retirement of nothing to do in a wide open space. This is all of a piece with the weirdly principled fatalism of Chigurgh, his detemination that his ‘work’ must be finished – and his coin.

And Roger Deakins’ cinematography. I know he split his vote in this year, between No Country… and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (and I still rate Jesse James more highly), but in the catalogue of Oscar Wrongness, he fact that Deakins doesn’t have an Academy Award is Peak Wrong.

Coen-isms:

  • Empty Roads? Oh yep. We pull back from the opening monologue to look straight down the empty Texan road.
  • Terrifyingly bright daylight? Of yep. The light is blindingly bright, come good or evil in the desert. But the tensest scenes come at night, and both involve Llewelyn Moss.
  • Incredible Carter Burwell score? Technically Burwell is the composer, but I can’t recall any music except the end credits. It is incredible in its absence.
  • Very realistic violence? Oh yep. From the off, with Chigurgh first in the police station and then with the cattle gun.
  • Extremely black lines delivered straight? ‘What is that for?’ / ‘Will you hold still, please.’
  • An obsession with odd hair? Yes. Meet Anton Chigurgh:

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And pretty great female leads? Carla Jean, quite remarkably played by the usually very Scottish Kelly McDonald (of whom I am a big fan), who is both curious of what is going on with her husband Llewelyn and generally fine with just letting him get on with it. She’s both nervous and bold. This is most clear when she’s dealing with her mother, who is probably the Coen-y-est character in the film. It’s also clear when she finally faces Chigurgh and refuses to call heads or tails. For her it’s not fate, it’s just him.

Previously: Intolerable Cruelty
Up next: Burn After Reading

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