We saw There Will Be Blood, and then a week later No Country For Old Men. Each movie opens wordlessly with a sweeping panorama of bleak country side. After panning the horizon, each movie keys in on a central character becoming drawn to an object of what will eventually become their lust. In No Country, Llewellyn (Josh Brolin) who is out hunting pronghorn in the west Texas desert stumbles upon a drug deal gone horribly wrong. As he goes from vehicle to vehicle, he finds only dead bodies, both of men and dogs. Finally, he comes upon a man barely alive, who says only one word—“Agua”.
Ignoring the dying man, and looking around the scene a bit more, Llewellyn discovers the pay-off, a suitcase filled with two million dollars. He does some quick thinking, and decides with nearly everyone dead, who is to know if he takes the money. He goes back home, to a run-down trailer and a long-suffering wife, hides the cash under the trailer, and settles in for the night. In the middle of the night, he awakens, conscious stricken—not about having taken the cash, but of having left a dying man without a drink. He fills a plastic gallon jug with water and heads back out to the dessert. Big mistake.
By now, the original “owners” of the money and drugs have discovered the deal gone sour, and in the dead of night come looking for themselves where the money might be. What they find is Llewellyn. And the chase is on.
What Llewellyn doesn’t know is that two parties are after him—a marvelously malevolent hitman, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) and faceless Mexicans. What Llewellyn also does not know is that the case with the cash has a transponder, so his every move is tracked by Chigurh.
The third component of this story is the sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) who brackets the entire story. In the opening scenes of the movie, you hear the sheriff’s voice-over in sorrowful reprise of the current general state of affairs. He arrives later on the scene of the drug deal, complete with bodies, and proceeds to investigate. As he pieces together what must be happening, and figurers out that Llewellyn has probably taken the money, he tries to signal to Llewellyn that he cannot win the game he has begun.
Several things are riveting in the movie. For example, the entire role that Javier Bardem plays is stunning. His hair, carefully arranged in a quasi-choir boy coif, seems out of place. But as you get to know his character Chigurh, you realize he is a sociopathic automaton who strangely lives by a code. One particular scene illustrates this: he stops to get gas and begins to banter with the station owner. Chigurh takes a coin, flips it, and instructs—no, orders—the station owner to call it. At first reluctant, the station owner finally calls “tails.” Lifting his hand slightly, Chigurh remarks how this is the station owner’s lucky day. What you realize is that the man’s life hung in the balance depending on how the coin toss landed.
There is a proliferation of people trying to retrieve the cash, the driving quest of the entire movie. Bodies pile up as people are viciously dispatched. The view of humanity leaves one head shaking and wondering. This is the state of the sheriff at the end of the movie. He sounds the only moral voice among all those who treat life as easy, or who are driven by greed. But his moral integrity is not enough to save him from the ravages of evil.
I should note that No Country is a Coen brothers’ movie. In many ways, it deals with some of the same subject matter as Fargo, but without the grim humor and irony. The title of the movie, derived from William Butler Yeats’ poem Sailing to Byzantium, aptly captures the world weariness that one experiences as age gives way to youth. In the sheriff’s case, he is also giving way to a world that has immeasurably changed.
The opening scene of There Will be Blood gives way to the solitary figure of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) laboring away in his silver mine. The singular scene is amazing in that for some 15 minutes, you see only Plainview engaged in the most strenuous of work, entirely without dialogue, though not without sound. The solitariness of the scene sets the mood for the character’s entire life—he works alone, he needs no one. Early on, the rigging in his mine collapses, injuring his leg. Dragging himself out of the mine by sheer force of human will, Daniel manages to get to the assaying office to see how much his silver is worth. You see him lying on the assay office floor, leg bandaged, waiting for the results.
It is this quest for silver that brings Plainview into contact with his life's lust—oil. This is a movie about a man who is driven to find oil in California in the early days of the oil rush of the 1900s. Throughout his early quest, he is accompanied only by his son. Eventually, Plainview comes into contact with a young man named Paul who tells him of oil seeping out of the ground on his family’s farm, in New Boston, California.
Plainview travels there, and begins buying up land. His first purchase is the family ranch where Paul had lived, with his father, sisters, and twin brother Eli. Paul clearly worked a deal to his advantage that the father agreed to. Eventually you realize that Plainview paid far less than the place was worth.
Plainview seems unstoppable until Eli encounters him. Eli (Paul Dano) is a budding charismatic preacher. He wants to dominate the town as much as Plainview does. It is inevitable that the two of them will clash. It is also inevitable that there will be a final battle between the two, and that, as the movie title suggests, there will be blood.
The riveting element of this movie is how oddly formal many scenes are. I finally decided that it functions rather like a Greek tragedy. The hero (Plainview) is larger than life, and while he is heroic, he is also fatally flawed. He will struggle but eventually he will be destroyed for his humanity. What we watch is the path to that destruction and the characters damaged along the way.
Daniel Day Lewis’ acting is an absolute tour de force. It is one of the greatest acting roles I have ever seen. That does not make the movie an easy one to watch, however. There are times where the scenes unfolding are so incredibly painful—you want to avert your eyes yet you can’t help but watch.
Both of these movies have given my brain much to reflect upon. Neither movie is for the faint-hearted. If you want to avert your eyes at blood, perhaps skipping these movies is the best course. If you don't like tense terse drama, bypass these movies. However, if you want to see some of the best acting of this current “crop” of movies, if you want to ponder some deep moral questions—e.g. the nature of good and evil—both of these movies should be at the top of your “must see” list.