I'll say right off the bat that I'm pretty behind the curve when it comes to reviewing this film. It's been out for a good four years, and when it did first come out it got a lot of excellent reviews, and went on to win four Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay Based Upon Previously Produced/Published Material). However, this past weekend I finally got around to seeing it, and I enjoyed it enough that a review is in order.
To start, No Country For Old Men (hereafter NCFOM) is decidedly anti-Hollywood in its presentation. For example, near the beginning of the film Josh Brolin's character stumbles upon a group of circled vehicles, around which are scattered a dozen or so dead bodies. Where directors like Ron Howard or Michael Bay would have incorporated a dramatic shoot-out laced with slow-motion jumping and tense one-liners, the Coen brothers instead chose to leave what transpired to the audience's imagination. This happens again closer to the end of the film, where one of the main characters dies in a shootout we don't see; all the audience hears is faint gunfire, and brief shots of the aftermath.
In continuing the anti-Hollywood approach, the film closes with a character recounting a dream. Unlike many other films where viewers are treated as though they have an IQ of 50 and need every theme spelled out to them (*cough* Crash), in NCFOM the closing sequence has no grand meaning to instill upon the rest of film. In fact, there is little meaning to understand whatsoever, besides a small insight into the character. The real meaning of the film is contained, as it should be, within the cinematography and within verbal cues throughout the story. But I'll get to that.
The last anti-Hollywood thing I noticed was that the film used no nondiegetic music. For those of you who haven't studied film, "diegetic" refers to events or sounds which exist in the realm of the plot. For example, a voiceover is nondiegetic, because characters on screen cannot hear it - only the audience can. Music is slightly trickier. If a character is listening to music or playing it within the story, then it is diegetic. If music is playing, such as the film's soundtrack, and the character obviously cannot hear it (because, say, he's busy breaking into a bank) then it is nondiegetic. So, No Country For Old Men essentially used no music until the credits rolled. I'm sure I don't need to point out how unusual this is as music is a strong tool for manipulating an audience's emotional reaction to material. The effect was an interesting one: without music things took on a slightly more realistic and suspenseful feel.
There were several shots within the film that testified to the intelligence, attention, and overall talent that was involved. Two in particular stood out to me. In the first, a fairly gritty scene in which a man is being strangled to death, the camera tilts and moves away from the murder, and as we see the victim's flailing legs, we also see an intricate, feathery pattern that has been made on the linoleum from his black boots streaking on the floor as he struggled. This took me by surprise, as I never would have thought of those streaks in the first place, but having seen them, their absence would have seemed thoughtless. Also, the artful way in which the lines intersected and fanned out was unexpected in such a violent context, and therefore all the more intriguing. In the second scene, Josh Brolin discovers a blood trail in the Texan desert, and as he looks up he sees a pitbull in the distance, that glances back and then continues on. I can't do the scene justice in words, so I'll only say it's a beautifully composed sequence.
Javier Bardem has received a lot of attention since NCFOM, and it was justly given. He does a truly fantastic job of playing his very complex character. The character himself is quite an enigma, and while at the end of the film you feel you have a good idea of parts of who he is, there are also significant elements which remain a mystery. Rather than seeing this as a failure on the part of the filmmakers to fully articulate the character, I see it as a success since truly complex characters cannot be understood within two hours. The mystery is appropriate to the story, and the lack of total understanding just adds to it.
As for the film's theme, it was just as interestingly unraveled. The first segment of the film featured an emphasis upon seeing into the distance; it used a number of shots in which binoculars or gun scopes were used. As the film continued, emphasis was removed from binoculars and transitioned to mirrors and reflective surfaces. During the film, there were several instances where characters discussed trying to see what was ahead, or what was in one's future. By the end of the film, emphasis was especially strong upon the rear-view mirror. In one final scene, which did little to add to the actual plot of the film, a main character looked in his rear-view mirror as he drove away, but as he checked the mirror he was t-boned by another vehicle running a red light. This ultimately sums up the message of the film: as the characters attempted to see and forestall their fate, they only distracted themselves from what was actually coming for them.
To conclude, the film was a witty and subtle work of finely-detailed art, and I would heartily recommend it if you are looking for something to engage your intellect for a couple of hours.