Just as every generation’s youth believes they were the first to invent rebellion, so too does every crop of old men hold firmly to the notion that their world was the one pure one, and that it’s being leeched of that beauty by the iniquities of their crooked children. That’s the central truth behind No Country for Old Men, the latest film from co-writers and directors Joel and Ethan Coen, who have fashioned another fantastic movie that’s a genre-swirling mash-up and as psychologically taut and philosophically mature as anything they’ve ever done. Their latest film is in many ways a return to the roots they laid down with Blood Simple: No Country for Old Men, adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel, shares the dusty Texas backdrop, shocking bursts of violence and gallows humor of the earlier film. But instead of a sweaty neo-noir, the Coens this time opt for a more deliberately paced story that places as much emphasis on the emotional turmoil of the observers as the motives of the killer or the trials of the victims. The film is also funny, trafficking in the quick wit and character-driven humor that’s a hallmark of Coen films, where the actors seem to take such profound joy in the slightly off-kilter language that the air becomes electric with the possibilities of where the film might go and around what strange corner it will wander. Most of all, the film is about a world that’s moving on and leaving its once-proud lawmen and protectors to stare blankly at the savagery around them, even as they long to return to a time when things felt simpler, even if they never actually were.
The story opens with the cruelest of the three men whose lives become slowly intertwined: Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a terrifying psychopath who kills with little forethought and no remorse, flags down a man on the highway outside Sanderson, Texas, and murders him with a captive bolt pistol, a kind of air-pressured steel rod that’s used to knock out cattle before they’re slaughtered. The metaphor isn’t exactly tough to crack: Anton isn’t just a killer, but someone who perceives himself as living on an elevated plane of existence, not merely able to judge men and dispatch them but somehow afforded this right by nature. The action shifts to Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a hunter ambling through the vastness of West Texas scrub who happens upon several trucks and a few corpses in a valley, the evidence of a drug deal gone bad. Moss finds $2 million in a satchel not far from the site and, in an understandable but still deeply stupid move, takes the money and high-tails it back home to his trailer and wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald). Moss isn’t a cruel man, but a kind of utilitarian one: He loves his wife but is mainly interested in how to tolerate her. Brolin is fantastic, as well, turning in what’s easily his best performance in a role that relies on strength and gruffness but never loses its empathy. The third man of the story is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), an aging lawman who never draws his gun and spends most of his time lamenting the world’s advanced state of decay. Bell is a quiet man who loves his wife and misses what used to be: There’s genuine lament, not scorn, in his voice when he says that after “sir” and “ma’am” disappear, there’s no stemming the tide of moral turpitude. The Coens’ screenplay expertly establishes these men, tying them together as lonely hunters trying to return the world to the way each thinks it should be.
Soon enough, though, Moss makes his first mistake, and it’s the only one he needs to make to set Anton on his track. Returning to the scene of the crime late that night, Moss is discovered by the Mexican drug lords who’d orchestrated the deal, and he winds up running from them through the desert to the river. In the hands of other directors, it would have been a workhorse action sequence, something that scoots the plot forward with a lot of flash cuts and music stings and not much else. But the Coens don’t waste a single frame, turning Moss’ midnight exploration of the dark valley into something terrible and beautiful and unnerving. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, a longtime collaborator of the Coens, is a master of using negative space to heighten the suspense that’s inherent in the scene, and the Coens aren’t about to do anything as hacky as overplay the score to drive home the emotion. The result is the first in a gut-wrenching series of sequences that rely purely on the story for their power, and they succeed every step of the way. When Moss takes off running through the desert, it’s honestly frightening. It never for a second feels anything other than real, and vital.
Anton’s pursuit of Moss, and Bell’s pursuit of them both, drives the story dramatically, but there’s also a sharp sense of humor running beneath the surface, carving out a perverse little geography. Most of it is simply the Coens’ way of giving their characters something offbeat to say, as when Bell’s deputy, Wendell (Garret Dillahunt), says of two victims in suits, “These boys appear to be managerial. I think we’re looking at more than one fracas.” And Bell’s speech is laden with aphorisms as perhaps only a movie sheriff’s can be, like when Wendell remarks that the soured drug deal is a mess, to which Bell replies calmly, “If it ain’t, it’ll do till the mess gets here.” But the Coens aren’t out to make a mockery of the border lawman stereotype, and Bell is certainly no hick. He is, in fact, the smartest man in the story, but even he can’t quite grasp the horrible truth confirmed by Anton’s existence: namely, that no evil is new evil. Fathers always lament their sons as lost causes, but never stop to realize that their brothers are just as bad.
Bell’s existential bewilderment is what makes No Country for Old Men not just a great film but a great Coen brothers film. Their characters are constantly struggling with what it means to live the lives the say they want to live, whether it’s Ulysses Everett McGill realizing the joys and horrors of being a family man or the Dude just trying to abide. Jones is so perfect in the role that it’s almost easy to overlook him next to Brolin’s work or Bardem’s riveting performance; Jones manages to seem at ease with himself and deeply upset with the way the world now works, the heavy bags under his eyes carrying a weight he’s clearly tired of bearing. On the other end of the spectrum, Bardem is electrifying as Anton, capable of wearing a look of near-erotic joy when strangling a man or remaining stone-faced while mowing down victims point-blank with a shotgun. His presence alone is unnerving, and the Coens are smart enough to let the story work for them when it comes to Anton’s hunting of Moss: The scene where Anton approaches Moss’ door, with only the shadow of his boots visible below the door frame, is stunning in its simplicity but damn jaw-dropping in effectiveness.
“I always liked to hear about the old timers,” Bell narrates at the beginning. “I never missed a chance to do so.” For all its violence, No Country for Old Men is filled with quietly haunting moments where Bell or Llewelyn or even Anton seems to pause and consider just what it is they know, and what it is they’re doing. The Coens’ ultimate triumph is the way they can use such bloody depravity in a real-world setting to shock you into attention and then, very quickly, whisper the truth of the way of the world into your ear. The Coens bookend the film with Bell, and the final scene is just Bell at his kitchen table, talking to his wife about the dreams of his father he can’t seem to shake. Bell is a good man, but that doesn’t give him a claim on the world. If anything, just the opposite: This is no place for him.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.In Texas, You're On Your Own
Film Reviews | February 28, 2008 | Comments ()