At the heart of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN are its characters men and women who inhabit a rapidly changing West a place where lawlessness has led to a brave new world of international drug running and where the old rules no longer seem to apply.
Against this backdrop, Sheriff Bell becomes a main lynchpin of the story a stoic, philosophical law man with a dry-as-bone sense of humor and a rock-solid moral foundation who is bedeviled by the advent of the drug trade’s new breed of criminal and the violence it has brought to the land that he loves.
Astonished by his new reality, Sheriff Bell represents an acute, heartbroken yearning for the more honorable way things used to be. “The movie is, no surprise given the title of the book, in part about Sheriff Bell’s perspective on time going by, on aging and on things changing,” says Joel Coen.
“I assume that’s part of why the book is set in 1980, and not strictly speaking present day,” adds Ethan. “It takes place just when the cross-border drug trade was getting very brutal, and that provides an opportunity for reflection by the Sheriff.” In considering who might play this riveting, yet reflective, character, the Coens found that Tommy Lee Jones quickly came to mind.
“There are just very, very few people who can carry a role like this one,” muses Joel.
“Sheriff Bell is the soul of the movie and also, in a fundamental way, the region is so much a part of Sheriff Bell, so we needed someone who understood it.” He continues: “It’s a role that also requires a kind of subtlety that only a really, really great actor can bring to it. Again, the list of these is pretty short, so when you put those two criteria together, you come up with Tommy Lee Jones. Being a Texan, the region is a part of his core.”
For Jones, the role proved irresistible, despite one initial hesitation. “I suppose I have played several Texas law enforcement officers,” reflects Jones, modestly, “so I thought about that several times before accepting the job. But the attraction of working with Cormac McCarthy’s material was overwhelming.”
Indeed, Sheriff Bell would be a complete departure from other lawmen Jones has played. Jones was especially moved by the character’s attempt to come to grips with the absurd reality that the world around him keeps getting worse despite everything he’s tried to do to make it better. He says: “In the course of the story, Sheriff Bell finds himself outmatched by this new monstrous form of criminality that he has to deal with. But he starts to learn that to react with disillusionment and disappointment is essentially all in vain.”
The Coens found casting the Llewelyn Moss character somewhat more challenging than casting Sheriff Bell. Moss, a Vietnam veteran, is a decent-hearted Texas good ol’ boy who would likely never have crossed the law until he comes across a great deal of drug money that appears to belong to a group of dead men. “Moss is sort of a regular person who's caught up in extraordinary circumstances and has one unreflective moment where he decides to appropriate a bunch of money that isn't his,” explains Ethan Coen.
“He then spends the rest of the movie trying to avoid the consequences. So he's very much the action center of the movie.” Adds Joel, “In this story, you have a good guy and a bad guy, and Moss is the in-between guy.”
But that in-between quality proved harder to nail than anyone expected. “We thought it'd be really easy to find Moss,” laughs Ethan, “because, in our minds, we thought, well, we just need a good clean kid. And it turns out it's not easy to embody that without either being dull, or being, again, not of the region.”
At last, the Coens found an actor who was able to bring a dynamic presence, rife with a distinctly Western touch, to the role: Josh Brolin, who has emerged as a breakthrough screen actor.
“Josh grew up on a ranch so he had a feeling for where Moss comes from,” explains Ethan. “He was just a natural in the role.” Brolin, who was raised in rural Central California, felt an immediate affinity with the character. He says: “Moss is really a compilation of a lot of guys that I grew up with. These are guys who have principles, yet I think they would probably do the same thing as Moss under the circumstances.” Providing the third side of the film’s taut moral triangle is Anton Chigurh, the chilling, offbeat villain who leaves no witnesses behind. The uniquely dark character would call for an actor capable of going to extremes of intensity.
“Chigurh’s actually described in the book as someone without a sense of humor,” says Joel. “But beyond that, his background’s quite sketchy. He’s relentless but there’s alsosomething mysterious about him. You don’t quite know where he’s come from.”
He continues:“We needed an actor who would be able to flesh out Chigurh in a substantial way, but also without giving away too much, and keeping that sense of mystery hence, Javier Bardem.” Bardem has quickly risen as one of international cinema’s greatest talents, garnering an Academy Award® nomination for his role as Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in BEFORE NIGHT FALLS, and winning the Best Actor Award at the Venice Film Festival as the remarkable bedridden hero of THE SEA INSIDE. With Chigurh, Bardem faced one of his most exciting challenges yet embodying a mythic villain whose soul appears to let in no light.
Says Bardem: “One of the themes of the movie is this huge wave of violence that the world has been taken by, and Chigurh symbolizes that violence in that he has no roots, he always takes things one step further and he’s unstoppable.” In developing the character, Bardem collaborated closely with the Coens. “Talking with Joel and Ethan changed my whole perspective, and the character morphed into something more interesting, more complex, and also funnier,” he says.
Alongside this trio of men are two equally compelling women. In the role of Moss’s wife Carla Jean is Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald, who garnered an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe nomination for her powerful performance in HBO’s THE GIRL IN THE CAFÉ and surprised the filmmakers with her audition. “Just as we were saying you can't really act the region, we cast Kelly Macdonald, who happens to be a Scottish actress from Glasgow,” laughs Joel.
“I just didn't believe she could play a gal from West Texas but she convinced us otherwise in the audition.” Macdonald was especially impressed with how Carla Jean had been written on the page as a strong-minded young woman who seems to be on equal footing with her husband. “It's a really sweet relationship,” observes Macdonald.
“You get the sense that they're very well matched, and she can give as much as he can take. That's the thing that really came across when I read it. There's kind of a nice banter between them, but there's also this real genuine kind of love.” Tommy Lee Jones was also pleased with the casting.
“Kelly has the West Texan accent down perfectly,” comments Jones, which is high praise coming from a real West Texan. “Between takes she was this sweet little girl from Scotland but when the camera turned on she became this pretty, tough West Texas gal. I was very impressed.” The other central relationship in the story is that of Sheriff Bell and his wife Loretta, a character who is instrumental in helping to define Bell.
Playing Loretta is Academy Award® and Golden Globe nominee Tess Harper, who herself hails from Arkansas. The Coens had been fans of her work since TENDER MERCIES, and note her ability to “convey a lot in a very short space of time.” Says Harper of her character: “Loretta is the rock that holds the Sheriff to where he needs to be. She’s his one port in the storm.”