Tommy Lee Jones Was A Natural Fit For No Country For Old Men

Ethan and Joel Coen's 2007 film "No Country for Old Men" is categorized as a Western, but the film challenges not only the conventions of the genre but also those of traditional narrative cinema. Based on the 2005 Cormac McCarthy novel, the film follows the aftermath of a botched drug deal near the desolate Texas-Mexico border in 1980. With the lack of an obvious protagonist, an anti-climactic off-screen death of a major character, no real conclusion, and an absent score or soundtrack, "No Country for Old Men" pushes the boundaries of what we're used to seeing in movies.

The film also ends in an unorthodox way, with a two-minute monologue from Tommy Lee Jones, who plays the weary Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Tommy Lee Jones was a natural fit to deliver the final lines of "No Country for Old Men." In the film, he's talking to his wife, but she's just a prop in the scene, a device allowing Jones to talk directly to us, the audience. His monologue is an allegory for mortality and the passage of time. And Jones understood the source material better than anyone.

A new kind of hero

Pinning down the protagonist in "No Country for Old Men" is a challenge. On the surface, it is Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who stumbles across $2 million, and spends most of the movie trying to hang on to it. Or perhaps it is the rare evil protagonist in the machine-like killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who stalks Llewlyn with Terminator-like precision. Or is it Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Jones), who offers the film's opening poignant narration but then becomes more of an ancillary character, always a half-step behind in his pursuit of Llewelyn and Chigurh?

The Coen Brothers continue to subvert cinematic norms by presenting a new kind of hero in Sherrif Ed Tom Bell — the old, broken-down kind. We're used to seeing the likes of John McClane (Bruce Willis) or Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) with a straight-shooting, no B.S. hero in movies. What we get in "No Country for Old Men" is the aftermath of these characters, a peek into a world we're never privy to, years after the hero's glory days have passed.

Bell is ruminative as he approaches the end of his law enforcement career. Even in his own movie, he's no longer the focus, that belongs to Llewelyn and Anton Chigurh. Tommy Lee Jones gets this, and channels it brilliantly. He was already familiar with the source material, having read all of Cormac McCarthy's work.

Jones is a native Texan

Tommy Lee Jones knows a little about Texas. He hails from San Saba, Texas, and is an eighth-generation Texan. He's a self-made man, earning a football scholarship to Harvard University, where he studied English literature. His love of literature led Jones to read all of McCarthy's work and additional critiques written about the author. According to W Magazine, he's since returned to Texas, owning a cattle ranch near San Antonio. The gruff, old Texan you see on screen is not an act, but the real thing. It lends tremendous verisimilitude (the appearance of truth) to the film.

Jones did his part onscreen, and the Coen Brothers do the rest. A lack of score or soundtrack diverts your attention to the dialogue and diegetic sound (the sound coming from inside the world of the film). Not only does it amplify the dusty, hardscrabble landscape of west Texas but it places us more deeply in the lives of the film's characters. When we don't have a soundtrack telling us how to feel about a scene, we're forced to judge for ourselves, as if we're voyeurs sitting in on conversations that we're not supposed to be present for. It makes for a more intimate audience experience.

If Jones comes off as a man of few words, it's because he wants to get it right the first time. He says it took just one take for the final scene of "No Country for Old Men," and that he doesn't like improvisation. Jones told Uncut:

"Preparation is very important; rehearsal is very important. Of course, spontaneity is important, but what you want to do is labor as hard as you can to create an inarguable illusion of spontaneity. The real thing is dangerous."

Despite its unconventional style, "No Country for Old Men" was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning four, including Best Picture. Jones was nominated for BAFTA and Screen Actors Guild awards for his portrayal of Sheriff Bell. For a movie that is stripped down to the basics and faithful to its literary origins, Tommy Lee Jones might still be the most authentic thing about "No Country for Old Men."