Now that we’re in the latter half of the 2010s, we’re starting to see a lot of publications dish out their “best movies of the 21st century so far” list. These rankings often include 2007’s “There Will Be Blood” at the top or near the top of their list, which is interesting considering the film lost out on the Best Picture Oscar to No Country for Old Men.
As the single best film produced by the Coen Brothers, No Country doesn’t really have the same impact or gravitas as There Will Be Blood, so its absence on such lists is totally understandable. While not boring, it certainly is executed without pomp or circumstance: There is no music in the film and the film’s three stars, two of whom were nominated for an Oscar for their performances, never actually appear together onscreen once throughout the movie. Compared to the much flashier and gripping There Will Be Blood, it’s easy to see why No Country is ignored.
However, it is still a remarkable film in every sense of the word, a monumental, soft-spoken achievement where every brief snippet of dialogue delivers powerful truths about greed, the violent nature of man, and the crumbling of common moral decency and society as a whole. Javier Bardem is chilling as the creepy, bowlcut Anton Chigurgh and Tommy Lee Jones delivers essential Tommy Lee Jones-dom as an aging, wise Texas sheriff.
But the best performance without question is Josh Brolin as Llewelyn Moss, a Texan who comes across a satchel full of money. While certainly masculine, Moss is an understated an reserved individual, one who would never try to initiate a bar fight but one who could easily hold his own. The moment Moss stumbles upon the money, we immediately see in his face that he’s done for. He knows there’s no way out of this, there’s no scenario where he’s cozying up on a Mexican beach, sipping mai tai’s alongside his ginger-haired wife. But he knows if he doesn’t take the money, he’ll still be hunted down for stepping onto the crime scene. It’s a Catch-22, a dead end scenario in no man’s land where no choice will lead to a good outcome. But one choice lands him with more money, so he takes it. Wouldn’t you?
Just like No Country is forgotten among There Will Be Blood, Brolin’s performance is lost when compared to Bardem’s or Jones. You can immediately think of qualifying adjectives when describing the latter actors’ characters, with Bardem’s Chigurh as creepy, and Jones’ Sheriff Bell as honorable. Brolin’s Moss has no such qualifier. He’s a mystery man, torn by conflict and doomed destiny, a man who knows he can’t outrun death, but still has to keep running. It’s an understated performance that buoys the film, a man who can not be accurately described as happy, sad, greedy or honorable. He is as ethical and unethical as a man can be, the ultimate answer to McCarthy and the Coens’ marvelous morality tale.
Marked by breathtaking desert cinematography and meticulous, slow-rhythm pacing, No Country is a master’s class in filmmaking, a grandiose effort from two filmmakers known for their quirky efforts but wanted to try out something more serious. Through Moss’s failure, the Coens found their richest success.