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10 Years Later: ‘No Country for Old Men’ is the Coens at Their Darkest and Most Political



When Joel and Ethan Coen released No Country for Old Men ten years ago, the film was instantly recognized as one of the high-water marks of their filmography. With the exception of Fargo, none of their other films (many of them great) had managed to distill their directorial genius quite as potently.

No Country opens with the simultaneous introduction of two characters. One is via narration, with the voice of Tommy Lee Jones as rural Texan sheriff Ed Tom Bell nearly as weather-worn here as his face, conveying an overpowering sense of weariness. As he anonymously opines about the good old days of law enforcement, the visuals present a new and far more frightening evil: Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Chigurh is picked up by a police officer for unknown reasons, then driven silently to a police station. While the arresting officer takes a phone call, Chigurh sneaks up behind him and strangles him with his own cuffs. As Chigurgh squeezes the life out of the deputy, their boots scuff against the floor in a frenzy, creating an array of black marks right out of a painting by Franz Klein or Jackson Pollock.

Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men

The third lead is introduced during a botched hunting trip. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin, at the start of his curmudgeon phase) fails to bring down a pronghorn, and instead stumbles on the bloody aftermath of a massive drug transaction gone wrong. Amid the punctured bodies and rotting dog carcasses is a truck filled with dusty bags of Mexican heroin. A little farther away he finds a bag filled with two million dollars cash and unimaginable troubles. Chigurh, the psychopathic agent of chaos, has been sent to retrieve the bag, and Bell is left to find Moss before fate catches up with him.

The conversation around No Country largely (and quite understandably) focused on aspects of technique and performance, but absent from most critical appraisals was a discussion of the film as the Coens’ most political work to date. Beyond its simple tale of revenge and violence, No Country for Old Men is a portrait of the United States at the mercy of rampant ennui and encroaching economic devastation. Though set in 1980, it’s an astute summation of the country’s mood circa 2007.

At the time of the film’s release, the symptoms of what would become the financial crisis — and then the Great Recession — were just coming to light. The movie casts a particularly desolate portrait of Texas, but other suburban streets with foreclosure after foreclosure weren’t looking much livelier at the time. Llewelyn and his wife Carla Jean (played wonderfully and sensitively by Kelly Macdonald) live in a cramped trailer that would soon become familiar to thousands of people who had imagined owning their own homes before the financial collapse.

Josh Brolin in No Country for Old Men

Even more present than this economic anxiety is a sense of rampant, soul-sucking greed. Moss steals the money because it could change his life, but paltrier displays of greed are peppered throughout as well. In two mirror-image scenes, injured and bloodied versions of Moss and Chigurh are forced to pay hundreds of dollars to teenagers for their clothing, either as a replacement for Moss’ soiled clothes or as a sling for Chigurh’s broken arm. In both instances, the boys accept the transactions rather than trying to find medical help for the potentially dying men. They also devolve into squabbling over the money. In Moss’ case, another boy tries to extract even more money out of him in order to give up a half-drank beer; Chigurh’s savior refuses to share his bounty with his friend, even though part of the money was to buy silence from them both.

This portrait of greed can sometimes seem a bit off the mark, as if the Coens are laying this immorality at the feet of regular folks, but they also reveal a deeper, more fundamental culprit: corporate greed. In a possible homage to Point Blank (1967), the film reveals a corporate stooge pulling the strings of common criminals. Stephen Root’s unnamed executive is coldly efficient in his quest to retrieve his stolen money; he has no interest in the foot soldiers who meet their deaths over it, nor in the innocents unfortunate enough to cross Chigurh’s path as he attempts to retrieve it. If anything, the Coens underplay the depravity of Root’s businessman. A little over a year later, the economic collapse and startling greed of the country would become apparent to everyone, the financial services firm Lehman Brothers would suffer a staggering bankruptcy, and its CEO would appear on the cover of New York Magazine adorned with devil horns.

Despite No Country’s diagnosis of American rot, it’s unlikely that the Coen brothers intended the film to have those resonances. Most of their films have been steadfastly (even doggedly) removed from contemporary social concerns. The most obvious signs of the financial collapse and impending global recession were still a year away in 2007, so it’s understandable that critics would fail to connect the film to the turmoil that was starting to ravage rural and suburban America. Another film from 2007, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, also dissected the country’s contemporary sickness, though in more straightforward terms. Critics didn’t miss the themes, but they mostly attributed them to the Upton Sinclair book the film was loosely based on, not current economic angst.

Of course, No Country for Old Men endures not just because of its uncanny social resonances — it also benefits from one of the Coens’ best casts. Bardem’s Chigurh steals most of the spotlight, and understandably. Bardem, affecting a dead-eyed stare and sporting a strangely feminine bob hairdo, is far more frightening than any horror film monster. The emotionless rumble of his voice, coupled with his cruelly elaborate weapons, makes him particularly chilling.

Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men

The film is remarkably faithful to Cormac McCarthy’s novel, partly because the book is fairly short and can conveniently fit in a two-and-a-half hour film, but one area in which the movie departs is in the scope of Tommy Lee Jones’ character. In the novel, Bell is the main force of the narrative, and each chapter opens with one of his monologues. The film uses only a few of the monologues, usually layered over other scenes, and Bell is pushed into the background in favor of Moss and Chigurh. Yet Jones’ noble demeanor prevents his character from becoming an afterthought. He is the voice of reason and decency, and it’s no coincidence that the film opens and closes on him. Bell hopes that he’s not the last of his generation, but has a sinking suspicion that he probably is.

No Country also displays some of the Coen brothers’ most sophisticated visual storytelling. There’s a scene of Hitchcockian visuals in which Chigurh walks out of a house, leaving the audience to wonder if he has murdered its inhabitant. It’s not clear until Chigurgh looks down to inspect the bottom of one boot, then the next. The Coens choreograph many brutal deaths in the film, but one of the most impactful is depicted only by showing Chigurh’s search for any stray blood.

The Coen brothers have made some excellent movies in the wake of No Country for Old Men, but none have quite matched the impact of this film’s quiet dread. It envelops you while watching, then sits with you long after it’s finished. When the final scene cuts to black, the enormity of the movie’s despair sinks in. What little light there is on the horizon is fast fading. It’s an experience that won’t easily be forgotten.

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.



  1. grimrook

    November 12, 2017 at 8:32 pm

    reaching fool

  2. Joanna

    November 15, 2017 at 5:49 pm

    I finally saw No Country for the first time a few months ago. Holy cannoli, what a film! When you say “When the final scene cuts to black, the enormity of the movie’s despair sinks in,” that is the same feeling I got when I watched the film. I didn’t see the ending coming.

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‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past



Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.

Rojo vacation

After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.

The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.

Rojo locker room

The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.

However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.

A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.

Rojo teens

Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?

The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.

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‘Queen of Hearts’ is a Frank and Difficult Look at Sexual Desire

Trine Dyrholm is typically brilliant in Danish film ‘Queen of Hearts’ — playing an older woman embarking on an affair with her stepson.



Queen of Hearts

Queen of Hearts starts with a rather banal scene. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) walks through the woods with her dog. Her children are just outside her large, glass-heavy house. She goes inside, where her husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), says police have called and he has to go. She looks outside at some barren trees, dramatic strings play, and the title credits come on; it’s a seemingly innocuous moment curdled into something far more ominous. 

This opening salvo with something moody and dark hiding within the banality and reliability of a simple family scene (later revealed to be in the future) sums up the Official Danish Best International Film submission Queen of Hearts as a whole. This is a film of bad decisions, loneliness, and creaky moral boundaries, interrogating the mores of modern womanhood against the backdrop of supposed domestic perfection. 

Our protagonist, Anne, is a lawyer who works with children who have been abused. She knows how to talk to young victims of rape and neglect, balancing a firm sense of what’s right with the necessary language to give these children hope. But she has difficulties switching from work to home, unable to give her twin daughters the affection they deserve. One way for anyone to switch off and focus on life outside of work, of course, is to engage in some form of intimacy; yet, her hypocritical, workaholic doctor husband has little time to give her any attention in the bedroom. 

When Peter’s teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), turns up to stay for the summer, Anne is immediately attracted to his moodiness and sexual swagger. Their slow seduction scenes seem to all come from different movies: porno (he suddenly comes out of the shower in the towel), summer indie drama (a scene in a lake with splashing water and an ecstatic soundtrack), and eventually horror (a writhing, overly staged sex scene in the dark that is extremely shocking in its frankness). 

These shifts in tone reflect the film’s queasy study in shifting sympathies, making Queen of Hearts a modern morality play baked in typically Scandinavian seriousness. Is Anne simply engaging in a harmless affair, rediscovering her long-dormant sexuality? Or is the age difference simply too far? With echoes of both The Hunt (2012) and the women-focused sex-dramas of Lars von Trier, it is sure to provoke a mixture of praise for its brazen female sexual gaze, and eventually disgust for where this gaze finally takes us. 

Queen of Hearts

Most of us assume that we are good people, even as we are engaging in less than savoury activities. It may look bad to people on the outside, but we have our reasons. The ever-reliable Trine Dyrholm turns in another mesmerising performance here, balancing her own lack of sexual self-confidence against her outwardly authoritative presence as a lawyer. Even if we cannot agree with what she does, Dyrholm successfully conveys her character’s complexity, making her sympathetic throughout. But just as we can never judge ourselves objectively, we can never know the ultimate effect our actions may have on others, especially in a dynamic such as this, leading to some bitter results. 

Queen of Hearts asks the viewer to never make assumptions, to think outside of clichés, and to really dig deep into the true heart of the matter. Director May el-Toukhy knows she has strong actors and a strong screenplay here, employing minimal tricks to just let them get on and really chew into the material. While unlikely to make it into the final Oscar shortlist, Queen of Hearts deserves a lot of credit for its utter brazenness and steadfast commitment to its difficult premise.

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‘Ford v Ferrari’ Drives Fast with Little Under the Hood

A classic Hollywood drama with fast cars and a stellar Christian Bale performance that feels great despite a lack of emotional substance.



Ford v Ferrari

Many directors always struggle with producers and other businessmen to retain their vision. What might work most for that vision may not be what focus tests and audiences have proven to enjoy, so the film gets reworked and reworked until it becomes a box office hit, and potentially retains a director’s intent. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t necessarily feel like that — this is a James Mangold film in many regards — but by the end of its story of vision and skill versus marketing and business agendas, Mangold’s latest wrestles with placing trust in an individual against an entire body of suits.

When Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is approached by Ford Motors to create a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (an annual racing event where drivers go all day and night around the same track), he is forced to fight tooth-and-nail to get the best driver for the job: Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby’s fight is singular; he wants to win the Le Mans, and knows that Miles is the only one who can do it. Yet, Ford Motors is still a company with many eyes on them, and employing the hot-headed Miles as a driver could be disastrous. So begins a struggle for Shelby and Miles to have their desires met by a company looking at the bottom line. That struggle — one that underscores every decision made by the characters in the film — is what sits at the core of Ford v Ferrari, and keeps things interesting. Set that aside, however, and the film loses a lot of momentum.

Ford v Ferrari

Still, the racing will grip audiences throughout. The final Le Mans challenge runs for a decent portion of Ford v Ferrari and is engaging throughout, but there are several other races and practices where Mangold’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shines bright. Miles sits in the driver’s seat of all of these moments, and Bale’s performance is never stronger than when his character has that need for speed. Miles is a passionate driver with pure intentions, and Bale gives him a lot of wit and heart in between huge swings of emotion. It’s a performance that stands tall but doesn’t distract, instead meshing extremely well with the action.

Meanwhile, the other performances are also solid. Matt Damon is very good in the role of Shelby, though his character is quite often reserved because he has to be. When you put him against Bale, however, it’s clear that Shelby pales to the race car driver’s fleshed-out character, as we follow the latter’s family, his rejections and successes, and his pure heart. In the backdrop is a wide array of supporting actors, including Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, Josh Lucas as the thorn in Shelby’s side, Jon Bernthal playing a standard Jon Bernthal role, and Tracy Letts chewing up scenery whenever he can as Henry Ford II. Letts and Lucas in particular give great caricatured performances, planting Ford v Ferrari into a more standard Hollywood drama.

Ford v Ferrari

Largely that’s the problem: Ford v Ferrari is a technical achievement with some incredible craftsmanship and performances that just never feels as great at slow times as it does when it’s moving past 7000 RPMs. It has a need for speed, and the pacing shows that, but it also doesn’t really rise very high above what’s needed to please an audience. Mangold is great at deriving emotional substance out of a subject, but a lot of that in Ford v Ferrari is left on the shoulders of Bale’s performance. Instead, the film focuses heavily on the bureaucratic side of things, and how that hinders talented people from being who they are destined to be. While fun to watch, there isn’t much more that will have Ford v Ferrari lingering with audiences. Instead, this will be a movie that resonates with racing fans and those that struggle against restrictions, keeping general audience satisfied in their big Hollywood dramas for the time being.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14 as part of our coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival.

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