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Action Alphabet: 'No Country for Old Men'

The easiest way to pinpoint the objective artistic worth of a movie is when you try to categorize it into a certain genre and you realize there is no definitive place that is belongs – a film that, aside from singling out perhaps a general mood or essence, encompasses a great many elements of various genres without giving sole credence to any one genre in particular, like, for instance, the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece No Country for Old Men. By that right, I am probably just as wrong as I am right to include this movie in a list of action films, but that’s the beauty of such a movie: it really can be anything it wants to be and fit into any mold. No Country for Old Men is a little bit horror, a little bit comedy, a little bit mystery, a little bit talking-heads, a little bit action, and a little bit of everything else, each component strung together like a timelessly elegant string of pearls by writers/directors Joel and Ethan’s masterful wordsmithing and overall sensibility of stark realism.

Photos from 'No Country for Old Men'
Photos from 'No Country for Old Men'
Josh Brolin in 'No Country for Old Men'

Based on the novel of the same name by Pulitzer prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men tells the interconnecting tales of three men –Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is an average guy who, while out hunting one day, comes across a briefcase full of cash left behind from a Mexican drug shootout gone wrong; Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, in his Oscar-winning role) is a ruthless hired hand out to get the drug money back; and Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is a humble Texas Sherriff trying to solve the string of murders left in Chigurh’s wake. McCarthy’s nihilistic meditation on the evolution of violence and the hardships of morality is so perfectly tempered to the Coen Brothers’ cinematic methods, the story’s narrative effortlessly carrying the fraternal filmmakers up to a level that always felt possible but never seemed quite probable. It’s the sort of movie that you can study, watch over and over and over again and still find layers to unfold and vivisect – this is the kind of movie that you could spend years talking about.

As far as the general definition of movie action goes, the Coen Brothers are not the type to include fighting in their work save for instances of confrontation that move the plot forward or for comic relief (George Clooney’s fisticuffs versus Ray McKinnon in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is sidesplitting hilarious), but their first hard and fast attempt at including chases and shootouts turns out to be perfectly in line with all of their other directorial choices – thoughtful and detailed albeit as minimal as possible. In a scene where Moss has a crisis of conscience that gets the better of him, finding him out in the middle of the night looking for a half dead drug runner to give water to, he is chased off in a dimly lit gun battle and chased by some nasty dogs – there’s a moment of realism at the end of the scene in keeping with the Coen aesthetic where Moss takes a pause to clear his wet gun while a killer dog is running straight at him. At the end of the day, the violence was essential to the story and a huge part of the novel so the Brothers’ hands were forced, so to say, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great exercise for them, not to mention further proof of the extent of their resourcefulness and ingenuity as writers and directors.