It is hard to look at the past 22 years as a particularly fertile time for American cinema—at least not when it comes to dark, challenging, character-driven dramas aimed at adult audiences. There have been a few years that have stood out, but far and away the strongest of the 21st century so far has been 2007, which gave us the likes of Zodiac, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Michael Clayton, Gone Baby Gone, and others. But at the very top of that year’s crop are three auteur-driven masterpieces that came out between September and December and which, taken together, form a loose trilogy: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, No Country for Old Men, and There Will Be Blood.
Even on a surface level, it’s remarkable that we’d get three high-profile, prestige westerns (or neo-westerns) in a single year (make that four, since the sturdy 3:10 to Yuma also debuted that fall), let alone three that can be regarded, without hyperbole, as amongst the greatest ever made. More remarkable still is the way their stories and themes dovetail into one another to paint a mythic picture of the American West—spanning Missouri, Texas, and California—while also shining a cold light upon the lies that built its legend, the brutality and greed that actually built it, and the mental and spiritual reckoning that results in the squaring of both.
In Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, we witness the erosion of said legend as mirrored by the mental erosion of THE folk hero of the wild west, famed Missouri bandit Jesse James (Brad Pitt), as well as the obsessed sycophant who would end up murdering him (Casey Affleck) in 1882. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, we jump forward 16 years to 1898, and follow a years-long descent into madness and murder by way of ruthless self-made oil baron Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he battles both the harsh California desert as well as a duplicitous evangelical preacher (Paul Dano). Finally, in Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men (which came out between the other two, but which takes place after them, story-wise) we find ourselves in the badlands between West Texas and Mexico in 1980, following a trio of men—Vietnam vet and welder Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), aging sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), and psychotic, phantom-like hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem)—in a race to find $2 million worth of stolen drug money.
Even as each film feels singular, they share several obvious qualities, both onscreen and off. While Assassination and Blood are grander in scale and run time, all are existentialist slow burn narratives that contain long stretches of quietude punctuated by vicious violence. They are each of them deeply concerned with notions of morality—both man-made and cosmic—without ever coming off as moralistic. They are harshly stoic and deeply pessimistic, yet too forlorn to be considered nihilistic.
Both Assassination—which was marred by post-production issues stemming from arguments over final runtime, resulting in its release getting delayed by a year—and No Country were shot by our greatest living director of photography, Roger Deakins. He found himself nominated for his work on both at the 2008 Oscars, only to lose to Robert Elswit for, of course, There Will Be Blood. The only flop of the three, Assassination still scored two Oscar nominations, one for Deakins for Cinematography, and one for Casey Affleck for Best Supporting Actor, while No Country and Blood battled it out at the top of the card, with the former taking home Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture, and Blood nabbing Best Cinematography and Actor.
(Along with Deakins, Assassination and No Country also share an actor between them: Garrett Dillahunt, who steals scenes in both as a poor, pitiable, and doomed bandit in the former and a surprisingly keen sheriff’s deputy and good ol’ boy in the latter. Dillahunt, who broke out around this same time for his astonishing dual performances in HBO’s Deadwood, was simply born to deliver poetic western dialog the likes of which feature heavily in all three films.)
Sonically, they are very different films, with each putting special emphasis on their soundscapes. The scores for Assassination and Blood were composed by famous rock musicians—the former by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis of The Bad Seeds, the latter by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead—and for as disparate as they are (Cave and Ellis composition is achingly elegiac, while Greenwood’s is nerve-jinglingly discordant and sinister), they can each lay claim to the title of Best of the Decade. No Country, meanwhile, is shorn of almost any score, outside some ambient sounds and a menacing closing credits track from the Coens’ loyal composer Carter Burwell.
All three films are adaptations from books, with Assassination and No Country very closely and faithfully following the novels of the same name from authors Ron Hansen and Cormac McCarthy, respectively, arguably the two most renowned writers of literary—for lack of a better word—western fiction still living; their mix of ornate, yet terse prose and harsh, funerary stories set in the American (particularly, the Southern American) idiom have brooked lots of understandable comparisons between the two. Blood, meanwhile, is an extremely loose adaptation of only the first hundred or so pages of muckraking writer/populist activist and politician Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!. Despite the disparity, Blood hardly lacks a literary sensibility. Indeed, its idiosyncrasies, particularly its willingness to turn away from plot in favor of character, marks the shift in Paul Thomas Anderson’s style that would see him embrace this type of novelistic approach in his next several projects.
In fact, all three movies are transitional films for their makers: only his sophomore feature, Assassination brought the Australian Dominik—who broke onto the international scene on the strength of his blisteringly fierce true crime drama Chopper seven years earlier—to America and served as a baptism by fire with a system innately antagonistic to his infernal vision (a process that has repeated itself again with the release of this year’s controversial Blonde). Although the oldest and most established of the three, the Coens had just gone through a critical rough patch, thanks to the disappointing reception of their two prior movies, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers. If not quite a comeback, No Country was regarded as a serious rebound, one that would kick off arguably the greatest run of their career up until they split in 2018. It also kicked off their own western trilogy, which would go on to include True Grit and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Finally, along with being a major stylistic departure, Blood was and continues to be celebrated as the movie in which Anderson—previously viewed as a brilliant but overly-indulgent enfant terrible—finally matured (although many, myself included, would argue that this already shallow interpretation unjustly ignores Punch-Drunk Love).
This trio of films not only represent an important transitional period for its directors, but for the country itself. Much in the same way The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the best film about Vietnam without being about Vietnam, this trilogy stands as the best cinematic statement on the Bush era, without explicitly commenting on it (although the follow-up films made by the Coens and Dominik—2008’s Burn After Reading and 2012’s Killing Them Softly are the best to do thus).
Released as the final year of George W. Bush’s presidency got underway, a period in which his disastrous wars in the Middle East dragged on and right before the economy collapsed, they speak to the miasma of senseless violence and destruction perpetrated by the Bush regime both at home and abroad, the majority of which was undergirded by nostalgia for American exceptionalism that Assassination and Blood put the lie to, and with which No Country attempts to reckon. Of the three films, Blood works the best as an outright metaphor—if still not explicit commentary—for the political landscape in which it was released, what with the central struggle between capitalism and religion being waged in the name of oil, but all three capture the mood and tenor of the day.
Of course, core to these films is the understanding that the lofty ideals of America that Bush was constantly extolling to justify his atrocities have always been a fiction. The idea that America has lost its way is dismissed in No Country, during a scene in which Barry Corbin’s grizzled old hermit tells Jonses’s despondent lawman, “What you got ain’t nothing new. This country’s hard on people.”
And yet, this isn’t to pretend America’s survival is guaranteed. No Country for Old Men is a pre-apocalyptic story (in fact, in 2006, only a year after the original novel came out, McCarthy publish his harrowing tale of life after nuclear holocaust, The Road). Taken together with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and There Will Be Blood and released in the final days of the American empire (“I’m finished,” as Daniel Plainview succinctly puts it), they dared us to look back into the hallowed idea of our national past, to try to see through the lies to glean insight into what the future held in store. And what it held in store was darkness.
As none other than Bardem’s psychopathic killer asks right before he murders a rival, “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what good was the rule?” Or, even more to the point, as Corbin says, “You can’t stop what’s coming.”