A man steals millions of dollars from a drug deal gone bad and plays a deadly cat and mouse game with a serial killer the syndicate sends to get their money back, while aging sheriff Bell attempts to track them both down. Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men takes on the problem of evil but does it offer any solutions?

No Country is one of the most memorable films in recent times. Some may debate whether it should have won Best Picture in 2007 (they always do anyway!), but for me I’d consider it a personal favourite: a great cast of fine actors, cinematography, and an atmospheric story. The main actors – Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones – are all in top form, with Bardem’s magnetic portrayal of Chigurh as someone you don’t want to see anywhere, and certainly not around any hotels.

Visually, No Country is just about as good as it gets, and worth watching on that basis alone. The Coens bring their meticulous film-making style to bear in chilling fashion: long tracking shots, close-ups, and a slow deliberate pace reflecting the detailed narrative of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. Cinematographer Roger Deakins beautifully captures the desert wilderness, symbolic of the harsh world these desperate characters inhabit. 2007 was a wonderful year for cinematography: There Will Be Blood, which won the Academy Award, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was also equally deserving. The Coens skillfully demonstrate the power of cinematography and editing to create a killer atmosphere, which in large part is achieved without the use of music.

The film however is not necessarily an easy one to understand: there’s a lot of slow action, interspersed with moments of terror; the dialog is sparse;  and it feels like it ends abruptly. So, it was one of the first movies to make me think I need to watch movies more closely (as we’ll see in part 2).

In a conversation between the Coen brothers and novel author Cormac McCarthy, Joel Coen says the work someone does reveals who they are, and that this is a key part of No Country too. In this multi-part series, I want to look at some of the big themes lurking behind the story, through what the characters say and do.  The first big idea is that there are no clean getaways  – a tagline for the film.

The film opens with Sheriff Bell reflecting on his heritage, how is father was a law man and his grandfather before that, the evil he’d seen in the world, and how one must put his soul at hazard to live in this world. The narrative immediately introduces two other key characters: Anton Chigurh, a cool, calm serial killer, described as “much more than” the “ultimate badass”, who seems to enjoy being captured just for the thrill of escaping again, and Llewelyn Moss, a tradesman and hunter who lives with his wife in a trailer park.

While out hunting (poaching), Moss stumbles across a drug deal gone bad. He employs his hunting skills to track down the ‘last man standing’ whom he suspects is carrying the drug money. Moss takes the money and the escape looks like being a clean one, until Moss has a twinge of conscience about one dying Mexican whom he found in a truck in the desert. When he returns to the desert to give the man some water, the man is dead, but those who want to reclaim money arrive on the scene.

From town to town, hotel to hotel to hospital, Moss attempts to outwit and outrun Chigurh. The Mexican drug cartel, knowing that the cash is out there somewhere, is also tracking Moss. Bell pursues somewhat ineffectively with sidekick Wendell, who also brings much needed comic relief (“Aw, hell’s bells! They even shot the dog!”). Bell however has compassion for Carla Jean, Llewelyn’s wife, as he would his own daughter, and genuinely wants to help bring Llewelyn home, well aware of what evil may befall him. A belief that is well justified, because as time goes on, the body count mounts (spoilers ahead obviously):

The policeman.

The chicken truck driver.

The “management”.

The Mexicans.

The cat.

The accountant.

Carson Wells.

Carla Jean.

Few escape Chigurh’s deathly reach.

Llewellyn does. The dog does too.

But the Mexicans get them.

And the cancer gets Carla Jean’s mom.

All of which makes for a pretty bleak film; death is pervasive and seemingly senseless. If some bad guy doesn’t get you or you don’t die as a consequence of your choices, then your failing body will. The movie’s refrain “You can’t stop what’s coming” probably refers to some bigger things going on (which we’ll get to in part 3), but it’s also an apt description of the seeming inevitability of death. And as in real life, those who remain are left to reflect on the meaning of it all.

One death, Moss’ death, is particularly significant…or is it?. In part two, I’ll attempt to figure out why, before considering what this mayhem means for Sheriff Bell.

Here’s one of my favourite scenes:

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.