The Best Cormac McCarthy Thriller Is Streaming on Amazon Prime
What’s the most you’ve ever lost in a coin toss?
Subversion has become a bit of a dirty word in certain circles. That’s partly due to some filmmakers using the term to explain away their less successful narrative swings, but toxic fan groups have also redefined the word as the source of all their least favorite franchise moments. Consequently, it’s easy to have a negative or skeptical first reaction upon seeing a film labeled subversive today.
But not every movie that’s subverted expectations can be called cheap or unsuccessful. When done right, subversions can not only be thrilling to witness, but can single-handedly cast the story viewers thought they were experiencing in a new light. Some of the best movies, like 2007’s No Country for Old Men, do both. Over 15 years after its release, the 2008 Best Picture winner is still considered one of the best films of the century and one of the best book-to-screen adaptations Hollywood has ever produced.
Based on a 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men follows Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a veteran who finds himself on the run from Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a sadistic, relentless mob hitman, after he steals a briefcase full of money from the scene of a drug deal gone wrong. As the two face off around the Texas-Mexico border, they catch the attention of Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), an aging sheriff whose doubts about his place in “modern society” are only heightened by the trail of bodies that Bardem’s Chigurh leaves in his wake.
Adapted and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, the film is about as tightly wound and precisely composed as a thriller can get. There’s not a single superfluous or self-indulgent shot to be found across the neo-Western’s 122-minute runtime. The film is so carefully constructed and spare that its cinematographer, Roger Deakins, has talked about how little excess footage was shot. (“We only shot 250,000 feet, whereas most productions of that size might shoot 700,000 or a million feet of film,” Deakins once said.)
The film’s austere, minimal style allows it to not only linger on many of its small, uniquely Coen Brothers-esque moments of dark humor, but also sit in its moments of tension. The result is an American thriller among the most tense of the past 20 years, a film that fully envelops you in its world and central conflict. Its moodiness and constant, simmering intensity make it easy to get caught up in Moss’ quest to defeat Chigurgh, which only makes the subversive twists of the film’s second half all the more poignant and shocking.
Despite how simply its story is told, No Country for Old Men is anything but a standard cat-and-mouse thriller. It’s a gritty neo-noir crossed with a sun-baked, Texas-set Western, a film that’s as concerned with exploring its themes of corruption, evil, and old age as it is with putting you on the edge of your seat. The fact that it manages to do both as effectively as it does is a testament to the impeccable craftsmanship on display, as well as how closely it replicates the voice and tone of McCarthy’s novel.
McCarthy, who passed away earlier this summer, was as inimitable an American novelist as there’s ever been. Novels like The Road, Blood Meridian, and No Country for Old Men transcended their genre trappings to become darkly compelling explorations of the corrosive, lasting nature of violence. In the case of No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers use McCarthy’s novel to craft a seemingly straightforward thriller where the real protagonist isn’t who you think, and justice takes some unexpected forms.
It’s a film that doesn’t work in spite of the fact that its hero ultimately has little impact on its plot, but because of his relative uselessness. The turns it takes may initially disappoint you, but they’re also why you’ll think about No Country for Old Men long after it’s over.
No Country for Old Men is streaming on Prime Video.