The Top Ten (or so) Films of the Decade: #5 No Country for Old Men (Coen, 2007)
I had a literature professor who offered a slight criticism of author Cormac McCarthy, that perhaps he was just a bit too fascinated by a particularly macho vision of violence and bloodshed. I’m not sure that the same could be said of the Coen brothers‘ adaptation of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men; in fact, the filmmakers seem to lose their interest in onscreen violence halfway through the movie, as grisly deaths and bloody shoot-outs grow fewer and fewer, and the lingering implications of sin and moral anarchy ring louder and truer.
This is the Coens’ most philosophical movie. Characters talk about fate and chance, about justice, about the inevitibility of evil and suffering in a fallen world. These are the questions we ask ourselves as we think about terrorism and preemptive war, and they are questions that have been asked since long before; the movie is very much an encapsulation of its time, and it is very much timeless in its concerns.
It is also the Coens’ most visceral movie, in my opinion: The intensity, the suspense, the sheer adrenaline of this movie best even Fargo and its infamous woodchipper scene, and there are moments of pure terror, as we stare directly into the abyss of evil, that are matched only by Barton Fink. It is a story told through precise, economic language, but also through the lens of the camera. The moral and philosophical musing is present not just in the script, but in the imagery: Indeed, I think some of the film’s most provocative characterizations of the nature of evil come in the very first and the very final images of Anton Chigurh, not in anything that it spoken out loud.
This is a great American film, one that acknowledges (sometimes quite graphically) the blood spilled across our collective landscape, but looks beyond it– inward, outward, perhaps even upward.
It might stand the test of time to become one of the Coens’ greatest achievements. As it stands, I would probably call it their most essential work of the decade. But get back to me in two or three years, and don’t be too surprised if I come to view A Serious Man as their most profound and sophisticated film. It’s just too recent– at least right now– for me to consider it for this list just yet, but it at least deserves a highly honorable mention.