Take One: No Country for Old Men (2007)
In Joel & Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men the ostensible main character is weary Texas lawman Sheriff Ed Tom Bell played by Tommy Lee Jones, though his co-star Josh Brolin is the film's nominal hero. Jones, though, an ‘old man’ on the verge of retirement and tired of the country he’s patrolled for so long, brings a melancholic meaning to the film’s title. Bell had more of a life/backstory in McCarthy’s novel (much of which the Coens left out) wherein he discusses his experiences in WWII, which hint at a desire to shy away from violent combat/confrontation; his life is generally laid out in more detail. What we do learn of Bell in the film is from the slivers of significant information Jones imparts in his refined characterisation.
The actor is typically, movingly good in the key scene where Bell visits his uncle Ellis (Barry Corbin). We see their playfully wry relationship in an exchange of sarcastic pleasantries over Ellis' ‘outlaws cats’ - a perfectly daft moment that features one of Jones' very best comically weary glances - but the visit is also rife with understated detail that speaks volumes about Bell as a man. Shot in profile staring out a window at the desolate and godless expanse of the Texan desert, and discreetly withholding his true inner thoughts, Bell enigmatically responds to Ellis about why he’s quitting the law.
I always figured when I got older God would sorta come into my life somehow... and he didn't."
Though his pause suggests an internal debate over how much to say, his expression is blank as day. It goes beyond forlorn; he’s silently incensed somehow. He’s... done. As he hears the story of his uncle Mac’s death, the camera slowly zooms in on him as he just stands and listens to the history of violence his family has experienced. Jones gives us everything that embodies Bell, his entire life of rough regret, in a few piercingly emotive expressions. He uses this stillness again in the film’s final scene, in the speech he gives about his dream. These two moments in No Country, perhaps above all else he's done, prove that he's one of our most spellbinding and near unmatchable screen performers.
Take Two: Jackson County Jail (1976)
Jones and Yvette Mimieux are like a badly dressed Bonnie & Clyde of the exploitation circuit in Michael Miller’s mid-seventies cheapie Jackson County Jail. Mimieux’s road-trippin’ Dinah gets into some iffy jail scrapes and we're introduced to Jones’ Coley Blake, a man of few words and fewer costume changes: Jones’ necessary roughness is suggested by his need to never wash and never change clothes for a life on the lam! That he’s a career criminal in a tangerine split-neck top doesn’t prevent him from assuming a grouchy demeanour and helping bust Mimieux out of jail. Looking back on this Corman-produced curiosity, Jones’ youthfully rakish, sharp-cheek-boned appearance is a spiriting tonic to anyone who may have only seen his work from, say, The Fugitive (1993) onwards – a period where he grew comfortably into the life-creased visage we see now. He has here the kind of ragged charm of someone like Jeff Bridges in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, though perhaps more po-faced and unshakeable, or the untested edginess of Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets, but with a Southern intensity. But Jackson didn't prove to be the early launch pad for Jones that those films were for Bridges and Keitel, due perhaps to its grot-lined cheapness. Jones had to wait until at least 1980 and Coal Miner’s Daughter (and a Golden Globe Best Actor nod) before fame started to go his way. But he showed great spirited promise in Jackson and got a head-start on the action scenes and chases that would feature prominently in his later career.
Take Three: The Hunted (2003)
Jones does indeed love the thrill of the chase. Workmanlike adventure yarns with an outlaw slant -- thrillers, westerns, adventures, or a blend of them -- are his professional bread and butter. William Friedkin’s The Hunted fits neatly in this group. Jones has always been an actor searching for something on screen, whether it’s justice, closure or redemption. He’s particular adept at conveying quiet internal decisions then putting them into action. He’s been the hunter (The Fugitive, The Missing) and the prey (The Package) in films where dangerous games with guns and running are virtually all that the plot requires. Jones even wins Oscars for this! Though The Hunted, is in some ways an inferior carbon copy of his Oscar-winning vehicle, he's arguably better in it. Jones plays ageing expert knife-fighter/tracker L.T. Bonham who is on the trail of Benicio del Toro’s AWOL psychotic. Bonham’s tough yet sensitive tracker has a history of danger and a current life of inner peace (of sorts). He's relatable enough to get us on side; deep down he’s a caring guy. Heck, he even rescues an injured wolf in his first scene. He’s the kind of man who vomits due to vertigo-induced nausea but not from the sight of severed bodies. He says manly things like: “If I’m not back in two days, it’ll mean I’m dead.” With Jones, toughness comes with a fuss-free guarantee. Clichés in characterisation stack up but Jones is a savvy enough actor to knock them down. It's all in those haunted eyes; Jones can fill even the simplest looks with lifetimes of regret.
Time and again, in films from No Country for Old Men and The Hunted, Jones' capacity for wordless expression of past tragedy catches you off guard every time and makes you care that extra bit more about his characters, however unique or generic the film.
Three more films for the taking: Black Moon Rising (1986), JFK (1991), In the Valley of Elah (2007)