In the midst of the Coen’s “No Country for Old Men,” there is a scene in which are lanky and cramped antagonist wanders into an old fill up-joint and confronts an old southerner. The conversation is calm and curious, as if each word of dialogue uttered by these actors is pinching us closer to the screen like the Coen’s are threading us like a needle with their screenplay. Based off the sensational novel from Cormac McCarthy, the scene is filled with peculiar tension that evokes us to listen to each word with a sense of attention to detail as if we, like the fellow men, are trying to understand this thing shaped in the form of a man.
In this conversation, he gets the older gentleman to share a vast amount of details upon his life: where he lives, where he came from, the members of his family, and even the admitting that he married into someone else’s inheritance. Playing on the idea of how we reveal private information like it's common knowledge, the interaction takes a turn for the worst as our unfamiliar villain, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), is almost offended by the idea of settling your life for something that doesn’t even belong to you. Concluding to a life that you may have not even wanted, it's the one common thread that we learn about this mystic evil that haunts the silver screen in the Coen’s twelfth feature film. He’s a man that sees things how they are, continually refuting those who argue something to be what it isn’t, just because that is what they feel is correct.
He offers up a coin toss, unbeknownst to our elderly gentleman, this coin toss has a wager of life or death riding upon it. He strikes the coin down on the table, covering the face upside with his fingers as he calmly states “Call it.” The man confusingly responds: “Call it?” And the following conversation ensues:
Anton Chigurh: "Yes." Gas Station Proprietor: "For what?" Anton Chigurh: "Just call it." Gas Station Proprietor: "Well, we need to know what we're calling it for here." Anton Chigurh: "You need to call it. I can't call it for you. It wouldn't be fair." Gas Station Proprietor: "I didn't put nothin' up." Anton Chigurh: "Yes, you did. You've been putting it up your whole life you just didn't know it. You know what date is on this coin?" Gas Station Proprietor: "No." Anton Chigurh: "1958. It's been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it's here. And it's either heads or tails. And you have to say. Call it."
Gas Station Proprietor: "Look, I need to know what I stand to win." Anton Chigurh: "Everything." Gas Station Proprietor: "How's that?" Anton Chigurh: "You stand to win everything. Call it." Gas Station Proprietor: "Alright. Heads then." [Chigurh removes his hand, revealing the coin is indeed heads] Anton Chigurh: "Well done." [the gas station proprietor nervously takes the quarter with the small pile of change he's won while Chigurh starts out] Anton Chigurh: "Don't put it in your pocket, sir. Don't put it in your pocket. It's your lucky quarter." Gas Station Proprietor: "Where do you want me to put it?" Anton Chigurh: "Anywhere not in your pocket. Where it'll get mixed in with the others and become just a coin. Which it is."
It’s that remark at the end that echoes the depth to which Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) exists, which is a man whose morality is absent. He’s a creature to many because his principles are empty, they change on the flip of a coin. No one learns this more than Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a man who stumbled on to a deal gone wrong in the middle of the Texas desert mountains. There are gun shells buried in the dirt, four trucks riddled with broken glass and bullet holes, bodies everywhere, and they even shot the dog. One man is left breathing, he resides in the hot sun painted driver seat of one of the vehicles, begging for “auga.” Moss (Josh Brolin) has no water though; he’s here to see if there is anything worth all of this bloodshed. He tracks the man who ran away from the firefight to a tree dripped in the shade, next to him is a satchel filled with $2 million in cash.
Who could refuse such a temptation? Indeed not this Vietnam veteran and now cowboy, whose own morality forces him back out to the same spot to bring that poor fella some “auga.” What he finds, is the men who came back for the money. They didn’t bring anything nice with them either, as they chase to him a near river, bullets flying everywhere as he barely survives and is sent on the run from these men and the man that decides to go after him, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem).
A cat and mouse game ensues between them, in which there are meticulously crafted sequences in hotel rooms and shootouts in the silence of small-town Texas streets, but the one man following these scenes from afar is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). The old gun of a sheriff who now finds himself apart from a country that seems to have no place for his kind. He’s a man that reminisces on the golden age of law and order in which the Sheriff didn’t have to carry a gun, but now he and his fellow cowboys are left with no choice. There is no room for kindness or optimism in this world now, and it’s a world that the Coen’s, along with expert cinematographer Roger Deakins, bring to life with a sense of gritty neorealism.
Each frame of the film feels as if hours of creativity have been poured into it, and it's also the screenwriting from the Coen’s that maintain that impression of noir realism. Which is what “No Country for Old Men” is at its heart, it’s a noir western in which the cynicism of the world that our gunslingers inhabit is no longer something worthwhile, but rather something to be feared. It's a land that now has someone like Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in its midst that has no sense of moral compass. No compassion, no sense to him, and no end goal. He’s a creature that no one saw coming, and no wants to see again, even being described as a ghost by our olden Sheriff at one point and time. He’s there to answer that one fear that Ed (Tommy Lee Jones) so poignantly discusses in his opening monologue by stating “I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand.” It’s a group of lines that are delivered so precisely by Jones that it jolts the story with such vibrancy of emotion that it surprises me that the film gets even better after that.
Deakins uses light and shadows at such a level of detail rigor that it's baffling that he was able to rival the photography found in this film with future projects, but you don’t get dubbed the greatest cinematographer of all-time with one or two pretty looking movies. He frames this movie in such a way that the neorealism aspects of its noir story are echoed through the visuals. You sense the grit, the realism, the consequences, and the harshness of the world we’ve become apart of, and it's all done with no score and no soundtrack. There is nothing that assists in the emotion; it's all manifested by two exquisite filmmakers, the iconic man pointing the camera, and the men in the spotlight who perform beyond expectations.
It’s old-fashioned both on the screen and behind it, but it plays in a way that feels natural. It carries a second essence that impacts the film with a stronger sense of tenacity than you would expect from such a simple and familiar story.
That’s not to say this story isn’t original though, Cormac McCarthy fabricated a novel that echoes with a vast array of themes that resonates so vibrantly with both the newer and older generations of moviegoers. The Coen’s take that core essence and expose it to a genre of heroism and familiarity and transforms that genre into one that derives that same message. Depicting a genre that can no longer be about the cowboy saving the day, because it's not that simple anymore.
Ed (Tommy Lee Jones) states in that same introductory monologue that “You can't help but compare yourself against the oldtimers. Can't help but wonder how they would have operated these times.” The answer that McCarthy and the Coen’s put forth is that they wouldn’t fair well.
“You can't stop what's coming. It ain't all waiting on you. That's vanity.”
It sure is.