Tom Jolliffe looks back at No Country For Old Men, the relentless chase film which did ‘Terminator’ better than every 21st century sequel in the Arnold Schwarzenegger franchise…
The year is 2021. We’re well into the 21st century. Franchise fascination has never been higher and likewise, the lustre in Hollywood for remakes, reboots and sequels remains strong. Stepping back to last century, James Cameron would become synonymous with many things, from sinking the Titanic (which subsequently blowing up the box office), to turning Alien into a franchise in the making (with Aliens). He also made a cyborg masterpiece of sci-fi horror with The Terminator and then created a sequel that wasn’t entirely necessary (or even all that logical in places) but was superb, still perhaps unsurpassed in large scale action cinema.
Back to this century and The Terminator franchise hit back with a whimper in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and got progressively worse until Terminator: Genisys, before marginally improving with Terminator: Dark Fate. All the tension and intrinsic horror of the original was gone. All the groundbreaking impact and jaw dropping spectacle of Terminator 2: Judgment Day was also gone. From shoe-horning an increasingly aging and farcically written Schwarzenegger, to half heartedly trying to ape populist blockbuster formula (namely the ‘Marvel formula’), nothing quite worked and the franchise has limped a slow death with little box office appeal remaining.
The trouble is, even the better 21st century instalments, a mish-mash of the less objectionable elements in Rise of the Machines and Dark Fate, were soulless. Above all, the action itself never carried weight, down to lacking interesting characters, stakes and engaging villains (perpetual re-invention of the T-1000, whilst only ever making the tech seem infinitely shitter, hasn’t helped). Poor CGI covered long but uninspiring set pieces that pale in comparison to other CGI heavy blockbusters (like Marvel), but indeed also pale significantly to Cameron’s first two meat and potatoes films which had a bigger proportion of practical stunt work in camera. As an example, T2 has a freeway chase involving a helicopter. These days it would have been done predominantly with CGI. Back then, Cameron utilised a stunt crew and a real helicopter. The result…spectacular (not least because his proficiency for shooting and cutting action was exceptional back then).
Also this century, entirely disconnected, the Coen brothers delivered arguably their masterwork, No Country For Old Men. It’s a languid, sweaty and gripping caper as Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) happens upon a drug deal gone sour, and absconds with an easy 2 million dollars. From then on he’s relentlessly pursued by not only Mexican cartel members who want the money, but a specialist working on behalf of the company who represented the other side of the deal gone bad. Said specialist though, has gone rogue, operating on his own judgment with a very particular view on actions, fate and consequences. When his target is set, he is relentless. A strange, almost mechanical, unwavering sense of honour. Among the languid pace and distinct dialogue, the Coen’s also masterfully disperse a gripping thriller within their neo-Western, that has more than a few tinges of horror. It’s all about the tension as action scenes are economically shot, prompting us to fill in a few gaps here and there too, and emphasising the ability of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) to become almost ghost-like.
Though we have subplots relating to Tommy Lee Jones’ world weary Sheriff, who is pained by an inability to rationalise motiveless inhumane behaviour (as well as the relentlessness of time/mortality itself), the core story is a chase as Moss must stay a step ahead of Chigurh. Minus the aspect of time travel and cyborgs, we’ve basically got a Terminator film. Cameron’s original film in fact, played very much like the rising slasher genre of the era, and there is indeed that aspect to No Country. Moss in fact, like Sarah Connor in the original film, is kind of thrust into a situation he has to outrun and then face. Moss is almost a melding of Connor and Kyle Reese (the military war torn ruggedness) in fact.
As far as the ‘Terminator’ of the Coen’s film, Chigurh operates with all the empathy of a cyborg. He seems to feel no empathy or fear, and a total determination to fulfil his objective. He’s soulless, vacant and chilling. Even as Chigurh engages in conversation with characters (the infamous coin-toss scene for example) he runs on mechanical responses that are blunt and often question the logic of human foibles like ingratiating politeness or banal pleasantries. It becomes increasingly apparent too that there is absolutely no bargaining with Chigurh once you’re on his hit list. To paraphrase Kyle Reese, ‘He doesn’t feel pity or remorse, and he absolutely will not stop, until you’re dead!’ The bluntness, directness and brutality of Chigurh’s kills are also Terminator-esque.
A few scenes in No Country mirror those of the original Cameron film. For one, the protagonist and villain have to deal with the aftermath of their pitched battles. Whilst on the run, Moss has to rid a shoulder wound of buck shot and ends up in hospital with an abdominal lesion that takes him temporarily out of commission. As for Chigurh, there’s a great sequence where Chigurh has to tend to a leg injury. The way in which his logic function computes gathering the tools to do this, and then in his self care after, almost mirror the famous Terminator sequence where the Cyborg takes care of its eye injury.
Of course the all round exceptional standard of No Country was a level no threequel onward (and most reboots) was ever likely to match. What the film does show though, particularly when focused on that central chase, is how the Terminator sequels should have been approached. Perpetual and increasing tension. Sequences that build to climax and action scenes that are effectively gripping rather than just throwing imagery in which often feels weightless. Moss’ hotel escape, after taking a gut shot from a flying lock Chigurh has blown out, is a great sequence. We barely see Chigurh throughout. He’s almost unstoppable as Moss tries to evade, first on foot, then in a car he flags down (the driver brutally thwapped by the silenced gun shots that permeate the windscreen). Finally an exchange of gunfire, with Moss using every wile he can to try and bring the odds closer to level. Brilliant execution, involving and gripping (much like many of the sequences in Cameron’s relatively low budget original Cyborg masterpiece), it’s a sequence more exciting than anything from Rise of the Machines onward, and each of those films cost well over $150 million dollars to make (No Country by comparison was $25 million).
Indeed, a more sensible approach to more and more Terminator sequels might have been to dial back and eek more out of a lower budget, rather than blow so much on films, which for one, looked cheap in comparison to what they cost, and also failed to have the required impact at the box office. The closest way to describe No Country’s blend of auteur vision and genre thrills (with engaging depth) would be to call it A24-esque, and ultimately an A24 approach to making a Terminator film would be the best way if ever there was deemed a need to try again (but it’s unlikely the franchise would learn from its mistakes). There’s a big difference of course to having The Coens combine with Roger Deakins, than directors seemingly on a gun-for-hire basis to cobble together a studio friendly market filler (which is a shame given what some of the prior directors are capable of when given freedom).
What are your thoughts on No Country For Old Men? What do you think of The Terminator franchise this century? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see… https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/