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90. EMPIRE MAGAZINE GREATEST: No Country for Old Men

February 6, 2018

Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Kelly Macdonald, Woody Harrelson
Runtime: 122 Minutes


Original UK Release: 2008




No Country for Old Men, adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, sees the Coen Brothers move toward the austere in a way that hasn’t been seen since their debut, Blood Simple. Gone are the quirks and black comedy of much of their more recent works, this is a dark, remorseless modern take on the western genre through the mystique of noir and the deconstruction of American mythology – and it's one their very best productions.


A tight cat-and-mouse story, with a swelling tension as the narrative threads converge on each other in this continuous chase of a film. The reality to its presentation of the society of Texas in 1980 – the set design and visual aesthetic being amongst the most convincingly downplayed the Coen’s have ever achieved – grants a sensation of immediate danger and veracity to every single sequence, set piece and confrontation. Most of which usually end in the death of at least one person in the room or vicinity.


Their influences her hark back to their darker days, where nihilism was a rampant and accepted form of examination to crime thrillers, but without the dark levity of Fargo. Their draw here seems more from the works of Sam Peckinpah, depicting hard-bitten and traditionally indestructible and stoic heroes being beaten and destroyed by the world they are forced to compromise in, marking the corruption and violence in human society


Drawing faithfully from McCarthy’s source material, the rambling narration of the characters is stanchly represented in a way that steeps the film in a dryness of tongue and the musk of age and lethargy. It chooses to tackle the midlife crisis; ageing men and the ideas of masculinity that they have constructed their lives around being torn down and exposed in a way that strips them of their armour.


Josh Brolin’s desperate lead is brilliantly underplayed with minimal dialogue and a great deal of expression and fatigue, as is Kelly McDonald’s sympathetic and cowed role as his wife left behind to fend for herself. Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh is the epitome of death; a barely emulate psychopath with monstrous eyes who is slowly and unremittingly stalking Brolin. He’s unfeeling and uncultivated, with a hauntingly lumbering frame and terrifying hair just a step out of reality. Tommy Lee Jones’ rumbling Sheriff is the diamond in the rough though against Bardem’s force of nature performance, who can barely believe how the world around him has changed so drastically.


There’s a vast emptiness and despair to the proceedings in this near baron wasteland, and Roger Deakins’ frames are filled with the darkest blacks and the starkest, sharpest lighting that casts shadowy judgement over its figures while Carter Burwell’s minimal score invades the scenery. This is fierce, dominant filmmaking with a fantastically existential and introspective ending note.

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