No Country for Old Men
by Del Harvey
The darkest film ever to spew forth from the Coen Brothers’ already dark canon of noir.
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SPOILER WARNING: PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK!
I may just be in the minority here, but I found lots to dislike about No Country for Old Men, the thirteenth and latest film from the brothers Coen. The tagline reads, “There are no clean getaways.” Perhaps it should read, “No one gets out alive.” But that would be a different film, I guess. And if you think I’ve just given away the film, then you would be correct. And those few who do escape the vast, barren and depression-inducing wasteland that is Texas seem to be awaiting the future with the same expression you might be wearing as you read this.
Based upon a novel by the equally morbid Cormac McCarthy, Joel and Ethan Coen’s tale follows the hunt for a fortune by one of the most vile and nasty bad men to crawl out of the West in some time; Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh. He is plainly crazy, as nearly everyone tells him, but it don’t bother him none. Chigurh has been hired by the big money boys to find out where their $2 million in cash went when a drug deal out in the Texas desert went bad and 11 bodies, including a dog, were left to rot in the sweltering 90 degree heat of the Texas sun along with a five pickup trucks and a truck bed full of heroin affectionately called, “Mexican brown.” Only Chigurh decides, at some point, that he doesn’t care who he kills, just so long as he gets to do so every ten or fifteen minutes. At one point, he even decides to off some of his employer’s men. Meanwhile, the body count rises higher than the last twelve Swarzenegger movies. It gets so repetitiously bloody and dark at times that I had to keep telling myself I really was watching a Coen Bros. film and not something by Michael Bay or Richard Donner.
The rest of the cast includes Josh Brolin as the newest King of Stoic Anti-Heroes, tight-lipped and taciturn as Eastwood ever has been. He strides and stumbles through the dust, carrying the satchel with the $2 mil, hoping against hope that he can overcome the unstoppable evil that is Chigurh. Tommy Lee Jones stars as the grizzled good-old-boy and small town Texas lawman who tries to unravel the whole mess, reading sign and offering up pearls of wisdom as much as possible to whomever will listen. Kelly MacDonald, a Scottish actress most recently shining in The Lady in the Café, turns up with a fine Texas drawl and looking as plain-Jane pretty as ever as Brolin’s common sense wife. Accomplished actors dropping in for small roles are Woody Harrelson, Tess Harper, Stephen Root, Barry Corben and Garret Dillahunt.
The film is along the same vein as earlier works Blood Simple and Fargo, only there isn’t anything to laugh at this time around and the overriding feeling is that the darkness will come for all of us; it’s just a matter of when and where. Or, as Barry Corbin’s character puts it, “…to think otherwise is just vanity.”
As I watched this film, I realized how much our current society has lost its faith in good old-fashioned hope? Apparently, that quaintest of notions has been abandoned, along with some other charming ideas. Such as character transition. By the end of the film I could find none. I fully understand the elements of the tragedy, but No Country for Old Men does not live up to the concept of true Greek or even Shakespearean tragedy. Unlike even that most dire and dark of films, The Wages of Fear, there is nothing about No Country for Old Men to give us a sense of why these people do what they do. This is not the case for the first two-thirds of the film. It really is the last third which lets us down. And as the inidividuals charged with adapting the book to the screen, the fault likes squarely upon the Coen Bros. shoulders. Knowing that they took the risk of compressing the last 100 or so pages of the book down to fit within the film’s last 15 minutes, then why could they not have taken the time to flesh it out more completely for their audience? They have already extended the film over the 2-hour mark; during a period where every “quality” and big budget film runs on average 2-1/2 hours, why not add another 15 minutes and give us something to hang our moral hats on? Instead we are left with an endlessly dark, and nearly pointless, tale of death and human mistake.
There are any number of loopholes in the plot which they have chosen to share with us onscreen. At one point Jones and Dillahunt have just missed Bardem’s bad guy by maybe a few minutes. Instead of going outside and asking around if anyone saw the guy—and we already know someone did and they manage the place—they sit down and drink a glass of milk and pontificate on the wisdom of sending out an all points bulletin on a faceless killer. This is but one of several little questions which nag at the viewer. Another lies in spending a great amount of screen time building up Lewellyn’s belief in being slow, methodical, and careful. After impressing this point upon us with great detail, we are suddenly shown him staying at a typical Texas motel, chatting up a young woman by the pool and accepting her offer for beer and, it is suggested, for some funtime in the sack. If the message here is that real people do make mistakes, they have given us little understanding of this concept in developing the foundation for the character of Lewellyn or for the message of the story.
It is at about this time that the money disappears, and everything the characters said or did earlier in the film becomes moot point, given up for an opportunity for further mayhem. Even Chigurh, whose raison d’etre was to obtain the money at any cost, seems to have succumbed to his own bad press, and continues on a path of endless distruction, in spite of the fact that there is no longer a point to it or a realistic goal for his character. He becomes something like the mindless killing machines we so often see in slasher films, like a Michael Myers who can speak with the maddening prattle of a Vincent Price. Only he’s lost his meaning and continues going on inertia alone.
Were this a film by lesser directors, a non-stop action flick by a waning former big budget action team, this film would be perfectly acceptible. However, the Coen’s are neither big budget action filmmakers nor are they prone to creating films without some semblance of meaning. Which leaves us, their loyal audience, to sit in the dark pondering the meaning of all this grit and gristle without much substance.
While it’s great to see the Coen Brothers getting back to their roots, this is one reviewer who wishes they’d remembered their sense of humor as well as some of the basic tenets of screenwriting. Without them, the viewing becomes extremely grim at times and, ultimately, disappointing.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He teaches film at Columbia College Chicago.
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