“What are you going to do?”
“I’m trying to do a hell of a thing but I’m going anyway. If I don’t come back tell Mother I love her.”
“Llewelyn dead your mother.”
“Well I’ll tell her myself then.”
Thus begins one of the most tense action sequences in cinema history. If you don’t recognize that exchange from Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Menyou may recognize him from the Coen Brother’s Oscar-winning adaptation, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this month.
Adapted almost directly from McCarthy’s book, Coen’s tight and muscular film explores the question of whether a man can overcome his judgment. As Anton Chigurh, the mysterious, near-mythical hitman decides your fate with a coin and a bolt pistol, Javier Bardem is a symbol of this main thesis.
But, memorable as Bardem is, the best scene in the film doesn’t start with a coin toss, it starts at night, with hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) leaving his wife to fetch water for a Mexican drug smuggler. Moss comes across what happened after a deal gone bad while out hunting in the afternoon. The bandito is dying, crying for water. After retrieving the sellers’ money and stashing it under his trailer home, Moss suffers a crisis of conscience and goes outside to carry a drink of water to the injured man.
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Things go downhill from there. Over the next three minutes and fifty-three seconds we get a chase scene to rival anything in cinema, in what is essentially two hours of behind-the-scenes footage. back
Silhouetted against the Texan hills in black and splashes of blue, Moss makes his way to the truck. He stops. The dealer he talked to earlier has gone down. The truck door is open and there is a fresh pool of blood on the ground. With little more than a tired expression, we see a deliberate Moss. He wheels around, seeing only his own truck standing out against the ridge line. Something is wrong. But it is already too late to turn back, Moss is already caught in the trap.
As the audience tells Moss to turn back, our man drops the water jug, draws his .45 pistol, and approaches the truck. A close-up of the bandito’s exploding head warns us of the violence to come. And here it is: a new truck, men, voices on the back next to Moss’s truck. Moss hiding. Breathing. Pray. The truck approaches him, the electric lights in the darkness painting him like something out of nowhere Meet closely the third type.
Shots ring out. moss ducks, run. He crawls under a truck, not a few yards away, but there is nowhere to hide. Then he’s up and running into the darkness, towards a thunderstorm on the horizon, the dark shape of his body only occasionally caught by the lights of the pursuit truck. Literally and figuratively, Moss has entered the darkness and is heading for a potentially deadly storm.
A palette of beautiful deep blues makes up the sky, with blood red haze to the east. The silver weave of the river appears. Moss is shot in the shoulder and falls. While we scream get up, go! He takes off his shoes and jacket and goes into the water. Dog snarls can be heard as the pursuers take aim. Moss dives into the water. A pitbull – all muscles and teeth – launches itself after him and chases him.
Moss swims in the darkness before dawn, the river threatens to wash it away. The dog strikes after him, gaining ground on the injured man. At the last moment Moss pulls himself from the river. He takes out his river-soaked pistol, ejects the bullet from the chamber, blows into it to shake the water out… while the dog has found the bank and is hurtling towards it. At the last second, Moss reloads, stands and fires, even as the dog is in the air. The dog’s momentum knocks them both to the ground. Only Moss can recover.
From now on he will be pursued to death.
It is, quite simply, a masterclass in suspense. From bandits to bullets to river rapids to snarling canines and unreliable weapons, Moss avoids death on many fronts in less time than the average pop song. Apart from the bandits, not a word is spoken; it’s a sigh, a laugh and gasps – and all this shows that Brolin has been one of our most advanced actors for a long time.
The colors add to the stacks too. This is no high-speed car down a sunny European street. He’s not a guy doing parkour while avoiding bad guys in an American city. Or a man running from a helicopter over a beautiful moor. It’s dark, it’s wet, it’s cold. Despite the vastness of the Texan landscape it is an extremely claustrophobic sight. The darkness presses in. For most of the series it’s hard to even see what’s going on.
Not a single note of music or score is played – here or elsewhere in the film. Moss is completely, completely alone. It is a miracle that it has survived this long, and one that few films since have dared to attempt again.