“A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say – OK I’ll be part of this world’” – Sherriff Ed Tom Bell addresses these words to us, the audience, in the opening scene of the neo-western noir No country for old men directed by the Coen brothers. A film that brutally shows the transition of society, depicts a world that is so ruthless because it is constantly changing.
Written by Altanta Kroehn
Texas in 1980, while the sheriff is wondering about the increasing violence within his area, the hit man Anton Chigurh wanders around with a hydraulic bolt stunner and war veteran Llewelyn Moss gets himself into trouble at a crime scene of a drug deal in the middle of the desert.
The original book, written by Cormac McCathy, already was a great success. However, the Coen brothers managed to raise the story to a higher, more meaningful level in their film adaption. No wonder that this film also received the Oscar for best adapted screenplay.
In the week after the Oscars, its worth looking at past best picture winners such as the one of 2008 and to investigate why this movie could win against other strong films such as There will be blood or Atonement.
Movie ahead of its time.
The film manages to break the nostalgic concept of good and bad in a western and still orientate itself to the genre rules. The innovative cinematic means are also shown in the fact that we can perceive the complex plot intuitively and the reduced filming only shows what is absolutely necessary. One of the main characters is even killed off-camera. The very intense scenes in front of a tranquil background really hit you.
Llewelyn being an (anti)-hero?
Yet another aspect why in this film good and evil gets diffused is the ambivalence of the main character Llewelyn. This might be one of the biggest differences to the book. He shows no empathy for a guy who is dying, he shoots a dog, he puts his wife in danger and even tries to cheat on her. Still we follow and route for this guy to get away with the money since he seems somewhat likeable anyways and has very dark humour.
“Llewelyn: If I don't come back, tell mother I love her.
Wife: Your mother's dead, Llewelyn.
Llewelyn: Well, then I'll tell her myself.”
Topped by a minimalistic villain
If you think the story is just about a likable bad guy wait until you meet the real bad guy of this story: Anton Chigurh. He tosses a coin to decide to kill someone or not. He never shows any kind of emotion, and he also seems to be unstoppable, although he is not completely invincible. The acting of Javier Bardem is very reduced as well and only confronts you with the bare minimum you need to understand this guy is evil and nothing else.
According to an article published in 2014 on sciencenews.org, the forensic psychiatrist Samuel Leistedt and his team analysed 400 movies in terms of realistic representation of psychopaths and – wow – Anton Chigurh came out to be the most realistic psychopath of them all. “Leistedt says Chigurh is his favorite portrayal of a psychopath. […] In particular, Chigurh reminds him of two real-life professional hit men who he interviewed. “ – (https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/gory-details/most-and-least-realistic-movie-psychopaths-ever)
Overall metaphorical perspective
However, I personally would disagree that Anton Chigurh is “just” a very cruel but realistic psychopath. Rather is he a walking metaphor. His name seems surreal and the fact that he can wander around unseen with gigantic weapons make him look to be above it all. It would be plausible to regard him as a kind of personified death that knows no pity and no justice, or fate in itself that decides by chance. Another interpretation could be that he stands for time that is constantly moving forward – that’s what Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is so scared about.
And yet all just a dream?
The ending scene at the breakfast table of the Bell’s house implies a further reading of the film in which the events could possibly only have happened in a dream of the sheriff. This could also explain the inhumanness of Anton Chigurh. This does not change the reality of time vanishing though. “A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say - OK I’ll be part of this world ’"
So No country for old men is a good film on a superficial plot level already, the metaphoric level makes it even better. That’s why I think it has rightly won four academy awards at the Oscars.