No Country for Old Men, directed and produced by Joel and Ethan Coen, serves as one of the 21st century’s pinnacles of filmmaking. In the movie, the Coen Brothers once again explore elements of film noir, outlandish characters, and philosophical themes, but this time without the comedic overtones that characterize many of their other films. No Country for Old Men is a film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, which details the stories of the psychopathic hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the determined Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), and the aged Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) in an intricate game of cat-and-mouse.
Moss stumbles upon a briefcase filled with two million dollars and Chigurh is hired to recover the money, all while Sheriff Bell tries to catch up to both of them to apprehend Chigurh.
Overall, at its core, No Country for Old Men is a straightforward and simple story. This fact adds to the film’s mastery since it is able to so deeply explore philosophical themes and remain engaging despite the linear and familiar plot.
The Coen Brothers once again do a fantastic job by subverting the traditional western genre, where the “good guy” always wins and there is a definitive, cathartic climax to the movie. The ending of the movie fades out with no resolution and Anton Chigurh safely escapes the law with the two million dollars. I deeply enjoyed this ending as a refreshing change of pace from the too good to be true endings of traditional Hollywood.
Perhaps this ending is additionally reflective of our bleak reality, wherein the “good guys” often lose and immorality continues to perpetuate throughout society.
With regards to the filmmaking, the Coen Brothers do an amazing job harnessing the absolute best from their actors. Javier Bardem truly embodies the most despicable, psychopathic traits in man as part of his transformation into Anton Chigurh. Meanwhile, Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin both do brilliant jobs of portraying their characters with subtlety that makes them more realistic and down to earth, serving as a great contrast to the concentrated evil that is Chigurh. Cinematographer Roger Deakins fully captures the lonely expanse of the American West and does a great job of using recurring motifs of darkness when framing scenes. Important visual cues are repeatedly obscured in order to build tension throughout the movie. Therein lies the film’s greatest achievement: its ability to maintain tension without exhausting the audience throughout its runtime.
The film forgoes a traditional soundtrack and score in place of visceral and enhanced sound design to amplify noises from the characters’ environment. This is particularly innovative, since the directors can build tension without music which is somewhat rare in film. Lastly, the Coen Brothers are masters of visual storytelling and chose to forego dialogue in place of visual cues that force the audience to stay on its feet to digest the film’s events. Taken together, these qualities give No Country for Old Men a place in the pantheon of great films of the 21st century.
Philosophically, the film explores many eclectic topics. Its most striking theme, however, revolves around free will and determinism. This is most poignantly shown through the dichotomy between Chigurh and Moss. The former seems to abide by a universal or hard determinist viewpoint, wherein our fate is sealed, or determined, by our past actions and nothing can change that fact. He acts as if free will does not exist, explicitly stating that he is not the one that decides if someone dies and instead leaves the decision up to a coin toss decided by fate. By adopting this view, he conveniently abdicates all moral responsibility for his actions.
Moss, on the other hand, acknowledges what is outside of his control, but continues to act freely according to his beliefs. He does not view his fate as sealed and throughout the movie, he attempts to outsmart Chigurh to avoid death and keep the money. He proactively tries to avoid the consequences of his actions which Chigurh, by contrast, views as inevitable. Because Moss’ beliefs and desires provide him with a sense of free will and compel him to act in a certain way throughout the film, he adopts a concept of fate and freedom that is in accordance with soft determinism.