No Country for Old Men

| November 10, 2007

George Bernard Shaw once wrote “Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.” The Coen Brothers would likely agree. In the films of Joel and Ethan, those oddball, sibling auteurs from Minnesota, death is often needless and usually pointless. It is indiscriminant, too, claiming the guilty and the innocent alike: you could be an amateur crook killed by your unhinged partner-in-crime (then stuffed head-first into a buzzing wood-chipper) or just an innocent bystander mowed down in the crossfire. Death is bad timing and worse luck. But for the Coens, it’s also fair game fodder for the blackest of black comedy–no demise is too random, too untimely, or too completely unjust that it can’t be exploited for a cheap laugh or two. And that’s the boys’ persistent stock-and-trade: putting a crooked smile on grotesque violence and air-quotes on human suffering. They might call it “gallows humor,” but it’s really just stone-cold nihilism with a wink and a nudge.
No Country For Old Men is different, though. “I laugh sometimes. ‘Bout the only thing you can do,” says Tommy Lee Jones’ grizzled lawman early into the Coens’ latest, and it’s probably the closest the sardonic brothers have ever come to laying down an artistic mission statement. Thing is, this time around they aren’t laughing. A fiercely powerful neo-noir set against the sun-blazed Texas desert, No Country for Old Men may be the first Coen Brothers movie to treat senseless death not as a sick joke, as farce or as folly, but as honest-to-God tragedy, the glaring symptom of a sick and ailing culture. It strips the filmmakers’ trademark style down to its bare-bones essentials, neatly trimming off all but the scarcest hints of irony and caricature. What’s left is as savage and serious and starkly lyrical as anything they’ve ever done–a nerve-shredding crime caper with a heavy heart, allegory forged in blood and sweat and grime and dust.
If this seems like pretty heavy stuff from the guys whose last two films were the respective nadir bottom-scrapers Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, it’s worth noting that the gravitas here are appropriated from a source outside of the boys’ own film-geek noggins. The Coens’ first literary adaptation (they can call O Brother Where Art Thou? a Southern-fried Odyssey all they please, but I’m not biting), No Country For Old Men borrows its title, its plotting, and its air of pensive melancholia from one of Cormac McCarthy’s tough-as-nails, neo-Western page-turners. Finding guidance and structure in the meaty text, the brothers faithfully render the details of the iconic author’s knotty narrative and (more impressively) the sparse, bleak poetry of his prose. Yet the blood-soaked final product, a steep plummet into inexorable darkness, is as intrinsically Coen as it is McCarthy. Centering on the discovery and violent pursuit of a stolen bag of money–that ultimate noir MacGuffin–the film recalls the white-knuckle tension and tightly wound genre mechanics of the brothers’ very first effort, Blood Simple. No Country for Old Men thus feels less like an evolution of their style and more like a refreshing return to basics, belated payoff on the promise of their low-rent, no-nonsense debut.
Stumbling upon a gruesome, real-life murder tableau in the Texas desert–a drug deal gone horribly awry, all dead bodies and abandoned vehicles–lone hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) walks away sight unseen, the aforementioned blood money tucked snugly under one arm. His first mistake of many is returning to the scene, bringing water to a dying man–in a world of such ruthless amorality, compassion can get you killed. Narrowing dodging his relentless, dogged pursuers (one an actual, snarling dog), Llewelyn goes on the run. Hot on his trail is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a cold-blooded, madman professional whose weapon of choice is a gas-powered cattle stun gun, great for punching gaping holes in doors and skulls. Two steps behind them both is Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who’s often little more than an after-the-fact spectator to the slaughter, arriving just minutes too late, forced to clean up the mess left by his dueling quarries.
On the surface, that’s all there is to the film: an episodic, three-man game of cat-and-mouse–chase, engage, escape, and repeat. Yet the way the Coens milk this simple, insular premise for all the tension it’s worth is nothing short of remarkable. Even at their most immature or shallow, the brothers have always been formal masters, and the razor-sharp, breathlessly intense No Country for Old Men finds them at the peak of their abilities. The hotel room showdowns are marvels of economy and trip-wire execution–Hitchcock himself would have admired their use of long silences and empty space, of off-screen sound and claustrophobic composition–but they’re not nearly as unsettling as the moments in between. A suffocating fear of the awful and the inevitable seeps into every quiet corner of the film. It’s fatalism, the one essential quality of noir that’s always eluded the Raymond Chandler-loving duo, and the one that Cormac McCarthy has always had in spades. Just as he did with The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford–2007’s other great American film–veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins reflects and inflates that existential dread, finding its visual complement in the vast, lonely, awe-inspiring desolation of the Texas landscape.
Death looms large over all of No Country for Old Men, and it finds physical, terrifying embodiment in the character of Anton Chigurh. Sporting a silly haircut that belies his utter seriousness, he’s nothing less than an unstoppable force of nature, as merciless a killing machine as the shark from Jaws–and like that beast, his terrible presence is felt even when off-screen. Yet he’s also a man, and the key to Bardem’s chilling performance is the way that he affords this cold, methodical psychopath a measure of eccentric humanity. He has a personality, however muted, and there’s a tinge of dark humor (the film’s only one) in his bone-dry rapport with his would-be victims. (Check out the scary/funny scene in the gas station.) Internalizing his anger and fear, Brolin’s in-over-his-head Llewelyn is a formidable adversary, as pragmatic and matter-a-fact as Chigurh, if not as remorseless and single-minded. It’s a nearly wordless performance, and a subtle, unaffected one–Llewelyn is a far cry from the over-the-top sleazebags Brolin played elsewhere this year, in Grindhouse and American Gangster. Watching these on-the-lam desperados attack and elude each other is like taking a master class in macho cipher understatement.
Relegated to the sidelines for much of the first half, it’s the weary Sheriff Bell who proves to be the beating heart and wounded soul of No Country for Old Men. By now, Tommy Lee Jones has perfected his own brand of tough, lived-in cynicism (see In the Valley of the Elah, which he capably carried all by his lonesome) and the aged actor lends an unsentimental gravity to the film’s carefully composed, bookend monologues. As the voice of moral reason, Jones’ Bell is not unlike Marge Gunderson of Fargo, bearing incredulous witness to the tragedy and bloodshed around him, doing his best to keep his footing in a perilously amoral land. (One could even apply Margey’s climatic “all for a little money” speech to the reckless carnage of this new film.) Then again, Bell is a much sadder, more jaded figure, and this beautiful downer of a crime thriller ends not with warm reconciliation–loved ones taking stock in what is good in their lives–but a tired old man trying in vain to make sense of a dark and uncaring world. “Death will come for us all,” say the Coens, with nary a snicker or a smirk. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but it goes down easier as a lament than a punch-line.

About the Author:

Jon Bastian Jon is a playwright and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles, where he has been currently appearing in Flash Theater LA when not working for Cesar Millan to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.
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