Spoiler alert: Not since “Psycho” has a lead character made such a conspicuous mid-movie exit as well-meaning Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) does in the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men.” But unlike Alfred Hitchcock and his flashy shower scene, the Coens dispatch their would-be protagonist offscreen, leaving some audiences wondering whether the character is even dead.
As Joel Coen told Variety just before the film opened, “The novel works a certain way, where you think the story’s about one thing, and then (Cormac McCarthy) basically pulls the rug out and you’re forced to think, ‘Well, then what is it about?'”
The answer lies in the subsequent scenes, as Ed Tom Bell, West Texas sheriff (played by Tommy Lee Jones), acknowledges that the world just isn’t the same place it was when he first strapped on his pistol.
Bell’s the type who leaves his sidearm holstered at all times — it just isn’t necessary for the type of crime he deals with. “Some of the old-time sheriffs never even wore a gun,” he says in the opening voiceover.
But this case, in which a bunch of drug runners will stop at nothing to retrieve a briefcase full of stolen cash, changes all that.
Remember the scene outside the cheap hotel room (Moss’ final resting place) as Bell stands staring at the shot-out door lock while Anton Chigurh waits on the other side? Things have changed. The sheriff draws his gun for the first time and steps inside.
So what is the movie about? Some see it as a commentary on terrorism, how the world just isn’t the same after 9/11. Not likely. Others view it as a ghost story, with Javier Bardem playing the Angel of Death-like force who inevitably gets his man. Closer, but not quite.
“No Country for Old Men,” as its Yeats-inspired title suggests, is about the character who doesn’t get his man: a fundamentally decent cop (Jones) who meets a force so evil (Bardem) he literally cannot comprehend it and decides it’s time to quit.
He’s not called out of retirement for one last case. The good guys don’t win. The villain goes free.
Hollywood doesn’t tell stories like that. But the Coens do. And critics, audiences and the industry alike have stepped up to embrace the brothers’ maverick vision. “No Country” now stands as the Coens’ top-grossing and most-awarded film.
Just don’t ask them what it’s about.