Monday, November 9, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "No Country for Old Men" (2007)

Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

No Country for Old Men
Release Date: November 9, 2007
Director: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Written By: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen (Screenplay), Cormac McCarthy (Book)
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 122 minutes

Oscar Wins: 4
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem)
-Best Adapted Screenplay

Oscar Nominations: 4
-Best Cinematography
-Best Editing
-Best Sound Editing
-Best Sound Mixing

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Michael Clayton
-There Will Be Blood

And the winner is...

As the scholars try and to recount the best films of the 00's, there are few that are likely to ignore directors Joel Coen and Ethan Coen's 2007 film No Country for Old Men. In a period that is arguably a low point for great Best Picture winners, the duo known for their acerbic style and genre subversion tackled the Cormac McCarthy with a deeper focus than they had before or since. What followed was a film that was so intense and featured iconic bad haircuts in equal doses. The final film isn't only one of their best, but arguably a high point in 00's cinema. By creating one of the most intimidating bad guys in film history, they turned a great novel into a great film, thus solidifying them in the realm of great directors who were recognized for some of their best work.

The conceptualization started the way that most of these stories start. Producer Scott Rudin bought the rights to McCarthy's book. During this time, The Coen Brothers were at work on adapting James Dickey's "To the White Sea." When Rudin suggested it to them, they took it on immediately, believing it to be very aware of sense and space. The film version is among the most faithful adaptations that the duo has ever done, oftentimes appearing to be word for word. The story goes that one would write the script as the other held the book open. There would be slight differences, such as annexation of a word here or there, but the final script ended up being a faithfully condensed version of the book. While the central narration and point of view remains present in the film, its placement was changed in order to better emphasize the film.

In keeping with the story's barren wasteland of West Texas, The Coen Brothers' script was very light on dialogue. Among those most concerned by this was Josh Brolin, who was worried that he wouldn't be able to give a convincing performance without having words to say. While this is abundantly true, Brolin would later admit that he really enjoyed working with The Coen Brothers. He would then go on to appear in their 2010 western True Grit. Considering that some consider No Country for Old Men to be a contemporary take of the genre, this only seems fitting. There weren't too many complaints from the remainder of the cast. However, it was also interesting to note that most of the antagonists and protagonists never actually share screen time, adding a sense that everyone is in some ways guilty of crime.

The sound production was the most divisive among Joel and Ethan. Ethan was the one who thought that the lack of sound would emphasize the tension. Despite this being the case, the sound wasn't entirely absent, as Carter Burwell's score appears at various points throughout the film, predominantly during the closing credits. The rest of the film relies on sound effects to drive the tension. In the famous coin toss scene, there's a slight humming that is heard to emphasize the weight of the events. This was actually taken from a 60-hertz frequency of a refrigerator. Other sounds heard include the scraping of briefcases and the ringing of phones. Otherwise, the film benefits greatly from the absence of sound, creating a suffocating atmosphere. It's funny to consider that fellow Best Picture nominee There Will Be Blood was also filming in West Texas and was in many ways a total opposite; incorporating scores and eccentric performances with grand visuals.

The film premiered at the 60th Annual Cannes Film Festival to wide acclaim. It was also nominated for the Palme d'Or. Many considered it to be the duo's most mature film to date. The film received a subsequent gradual roll-out starting that proceeding November. Based on box office, it would become the third lowest grossing Best Picture winner in history (ahead of Crash and The Hurt Locker); a factor made more baffling considering that it made $74 million in America and $170 million internationally. It was also The Coen Brothers' most successful film to that date, only being beaten by True Grit. Along with a slew of awards, including two Golden Globes, the film maintained traction due to its slow release. Likely because of these factors, it was also the winner during the lowest watched year in Academy Awards ceremony history, hosted by Jon Stewart.

The film was nominated for eight Oscars and won half of them. The Coen Brothers became only the second duo to win Best Picture after Robert Wise and Jerome Roberts for West Side Story over 40 years previously. Javier Bardem became the first Spanish director to win an Oscar. During his acceptance speech, he poked fun at his bad haircut and dedicated the award to various people in Spain, including his mother. This was also the second year in history of which all four acting winners were born outside of the United States. The Coen Brothers won for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay - thus making them one of very few to be awarded three times in one ceremony. 

As time has progressed, there has been a fond rivalry between No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. In many cases, they were both considered the best films of the 00's. While the latter has become more popular thanks to a career-defining performance by Daniel Day Lewis, No Country for Old Men has remained a high point of the co-directors' eccentric filmography. The film is largely attributed for being a tense cat and mouse film with a lot of underlying themes that helped to redefine the thriller. It was on the cusp of the "gritty reboot" era that would be popularized the following year with The Dark Knight. However, making a dark film didn't stop The Coen Brothers from mixing it up. Their follow-up was the spy satire Burn After Reading. Much like the film that proceeded Fargo (their previous Best Picture nomination and highest acclaim to that point), The Big Lebowski, it was a total shift that many found isolating. While they haven't gotten nearly as dark and controversially as violent since, they have remains prolific with critically acclaimed work.

No Country for Old Men is a film that remains as intense and exciting in ways that few Best Picture winners of the 00's were. With an iconic villain in Bardem's Anton Chigurgh, it redefined tension by taking out the dialogue and creatively using sound. Even if this remains a slightly out of character film for The Coen Brothers, it's fitting for a pair that make it their motive to be different. While there have been McCarthy adaptations before and since, there are few that capture the dourness and absurdity of the master writer as well. It's a film that is surely unforgettable and even in a year with another career-defining film for their director in There Will Be Blood, it still feels fine that it won. If nothing else, it's a testament to how great of a year 2007 was. It's the type that you wish came around more often.

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