Home > Reviews > NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN – Carter Burwell

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN – Carter Burwell

November 9, 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Clark Douglas

I hesitate to write about “No Country for Old Men”, because I fear my words can’t do it justice. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a motion picture. It is a film that is frightening and breathtaking, crafted with enormous levels of skill by two very gifted filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen. The Coen Brothers have been making very good and sometimes great films for a couple of decades now, and in the past few years some began to wonder if they had lost their touch. “Intolerable Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers” seemed to be missing the magic that the Coens brought to their films. “No Country for Old Men” brings them back to the front of the battlefield with a mighty vengeance. This is the best movie I’ve seen in a long time, kids.

The story begins in a manner somewhat similar to Sam Raimi’s “A Simple Plan”. The setting is west Texas, right above the Mexico border, and the year is 1980. A man named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is out hunting one day, and comes across a handful of dead bodies and empty vehicles in the middle of a field. Near the scene, Moss finds a suitcase with two million dollars inside. He contemplates things for a moment, and decides to take the money home. Within a matter of hours, Moss finds himself being hunted by a vicious killer, and must make a run for it until things cool down. He instructs his wife to go stay with her mother, and he hits the road.

The killer’s name is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), and he is perhaps the most frightening villain in cinema in years. There’s a line in Cormac McCarthy’s novel that doesn’t make it to the movie, but it describes Chigurh quite well. “He doesn’t have any enemies. He doesn’t allow them.” Chigurh is a man who will take down any and every person who gets remotely in his way, even innocent people. Every once in a while he will permit the victim the luxury of a coin toss, asking them to call heads or tails for their life. This is first seen in a masterful piece of dialogue between Chigurh and a humble gas station attendant early in the film.

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) knows what kind of man is after Moss, and determines to try and find Moss before Chigurh does. Sheriff Bell has his own troubles, though… he’s not so sure he’s up to the task. Bell engages in some very thoughtful conversations as the film progresses, and comments soberly on the state of things in this troubled world of ours. He doesn’t understand Chigurh, and isn’t sure he wants to. In a world where killers simply kill for the sake of killing, and not for sake of anything else in particular, Sheriff Bell feels outdated and outmatched.

The film is a masterpiece on every level, and I suppose we ought to begin on the more technical areas. Take a look at Roger Deakins’ cinematography. The man has been doing stunning work for years, including on remarkable-looking Coen films like “Fargo” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou”. But this is one of his new highpoints, as he captures everything from the barren Texas landscapes to lonely hotel rooms with searing precision. The soundtrack provides an eerie effect by letting the wind blow in the background of many scenes, a simultaneously innocent and menacing presence that suggests the oncoming storm of violence. The use of sound in general in the film is immensely impressive… consider the tension generated by the quiet beeps of a key piece of equipment in the film, or the way you hear the distant telephone rings in the distance as Moss dials the front desk in the hotel.

Composer Carter Burwell has been collaborating with the Coens ever since the beginning with “Blood Simple”. However, in their recent collaborations, Burwell’s score efforts have become increasingly minimal in quantity, as the Coens have begun to favor songs a lot more and original score a lot less. Things are even less musical in “No Country for Old Men”, with no songs whatsoever and very little score. Burwell claims there were twelve minutes of score material written for the film. However, Burwell’s music is closer in tone to the work Bernard Herrmann did on “The Birds” than to any of his Coen collaborations… that is to say, it’s essentially sound design, simply tones worked into the fabric of the film. To be quite honest, I didn’t hear any of these… perhaps they were so subtle (or the film was so engrossing) that I completely missed them. The only musical moments that (intentionally) stand out are a brief appearance by a mariachi band midway through the film and a low-key guitar theme over that plays over the end credits. The latter somewhat resembles the quieter material from Burwell’s score for “The Hi-Lo Country”. This is the kind of musical effort that is difficult to judge in terms of star ratings, simply because it is most notable for it’s absence. Nonetheless, Burwell has done his job about as well as I imagine he could possibly do it, and served the film quite strongly in doing so.

“No Country” for old men is impressive in what it shows us… numerous scenes reach an almost unbearable level of suspense, staring firmly into the oncoming doom with unflinching matter-of-fact realism. Often, Deakins will frame the perfect shot, and just let it sit there, looking like a moving painting. This is an incredible film to look at, so incredible that one critic was inspired to say that you could turn the sound down and hardly miss a thing. That’s more than a bit inaccurate, though. Not just because of the stunning sound work, but also because of the superb dialogue taken more or less from Cormac McCarthy’s novel. McCarthy is a great writer with a unique voice, and these actors know how to deliver these lines.

That accolade particularly extends to Tommy Lee Jones, whose work here should serve as a film school model of dialogue delivery. Consider that way that Jones manages to seem wise without ever seeming pompous, the way he seems like a quiet man even though he says quite a lot. His words open and close the film, and the conversations he has with various individuals throughout the film are some of the strongest moments. Josh Brolin continues his comeback year with a strong lead performance, Woody Harrelson has a strong supporting turn, and the very Scottish Kelly McDonald is excellent as Moss’ very southern wife. But the man everyone will be talking about is Javier Bardem, whose chilling portrayal practically guarantees him an Oscar nomination. His portrayal of Anton Chigurh is the scariest thing I’ve seen in the movies this year. This is a man who would easily win any match against Ben Wade, Frank Lucas, The Zodiac Killer, King Leonidas, Viggo Mortenson’s character from “Eastern Promises”, or just about any other character from cinema this year. Sporting a strange haircut and carrying an oxygen-fueled piece of equipment used for killing cattle, Bardem is nothing short of terrifying in this movie. The words “and death followed with him” kept coming to mind every time Bardem stepped onscreen.

The film is a stunning thriller, and that’s enough for me. But like Steven Spielberg’s “Munich”, it’s also about something more. “No Country for Old Men” is a film about a generation of ordinary people trying to cope in a desensitized society, a world where people do bad things simply because it’s the thing to do… a world where no one notices all the violence and suffering around them unless it’s presented in some sort of sensational manner. Sheriff Bell doesn’t want to hunt Chigurh because he’s afraid of “putting his soul at hazard.” In a narcissistic world like this one where people could care less about anyone or anything that’s preventing them from getting what they want, nice folks trying to do the right thing don’t stand much of a chance. It’s no country for old men, and no country for good men. In this film’s world (and far too often in our own), a decent man can only take comfort in the fortunate accidents that work out in their favor. It’s a bleak vision, and the film may leave some begging for comfort by the film’s conclusion… but I feel the Coens ought to be commended for bringing such an uncompromising and honest vision to the screen in such a powerful and effective manner. Easily the best film of the year, and quite possibly the best of this decade thus far. An absolute must-see.

Rating: ***

Track Listing:

  • Not Available
  • Two cues from Burwell’s score, “A Jackpot” and the end credits piece “Blood Trail”, can be heard at his website, The Body, at this link

Music composed by Carter Burwell. Performed by Carter Burwell, David Torn, John Pattitucci, Gordon Gottlieb and Jamie Haddad. Recorded and mixed by Carter Burwell. Score produced by Carter Burwell.

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