The Reeler


November 8, 2007

No Country For Old Men

Don't call it a comeback -- the blood spilled in Coens' triumph is not that simple

The summative superlatives being aimed at No Country for Old Men belie the film's individual significance. An adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel of twisted thievery and murder in a decaying corner of West Texas in 1980, the movie only shares superficial qualities with the previous work of filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. As a result, the stream of hyperbole declaring No Country to be the Coen brothers’ finest accomplishment -- accolades (including my own) that have enshrouded its reputation since it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year -- don't do justice either to the film or its creators' oeuvre.

With cult hits like Fargo, The Big Lebowski and Raising Arizona, the Coens have cultivated a reputation for crafting bizarre caricatures of Middle America. No Country, a haunting poem of generational decay, is eerily distinct from that format. The characters bear archetypal hallmarks: A welder named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) discovers the aftermath of a gunfight in desolate Texas terrain. Among the bodies he finds $2 million of drug money and quickly plots to head south of the border. But this mysterious badass lacks the resilience his tough façade suggests, and his get-rich-quick scheme quickly grows rotten. Trailed by a handful of bounty hunters and an extremely soft-spoken sheriff named Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), Llewelyn becomes a victim of illusory narcissism; seemingly interested only in personal gain, his fantasy of wealth overwhelms the practical necessity to fend for his life.

Yet Llewelyn's existential plight is hardly the moral fiber of the movie. A quietly merciless killer named Anton Chigurh (masterfully played by Javier Bardem, with a focused gaze, half-grunts and graveyard whispers) weaves through its slow-burning plot. Anton carries a captive bolt pistol, a frighteningly powerful gun meant for cattle slaughter, that discharges with a haunting thump and horrific impact. Sticking close to Llewelyn's tail, Anton proves to be a startlingly effective hired gun, but he treats killing as a creative passion rather than a profession. Not once does he seem particularly interested in the pilfered bounty; instead, he seeks to destroy personality types that he finds disreputable.

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Anton's twisted sense of duty is contrasted with the ideals of Sheriff Bell, whose solemn eyes and monologues about the loss of tranquility in daily life speak to self-propagated vanity. Anton is both a symbolic and literal representation of the force that drives the settled way of life into the ground. Meeting a farmer type at a nearby filling station and irked by his plainspoken hominess, Anton offers the man a chance to call a coin toss to determine (unbeknownst to him) if he lives or dies. "But I haven’t put anything up," the man insists. "You’ve been putting it up your whole life," Anton shoots back.

McCarthy's character dynamics reek of metaphor, but that doesn't detract from their developed personalities. Closely mimicking the author's straightforward prose in their script (with Roger Deakins’s photography turning the desert landscape into a golden wasteland), the Coens make theme and plot indistinguishable. The movie's ideological weight comes from sparse, sharply written dialogue and pregnant pauses, which manage never to detract from its marvelously efficient pacing. It's particularly relevant that the sheriff chooses not to go after Anton; our anticipation that such a showdown might take place beats throughout the film.

The Coens (with Joel, as usual, directing) engineer some terrific action sequences (consisting solely of shoot-outs) that are less pulse-pounding than disquieting for their realism. The brothers' other movies have flaunted a sarcastic approach to violent tendencies, but No Country takes them at face value; the battles unfold without heavy stylization, which gives them a chillingly organic feel. There's no music in the movie, and not once does it feel like its authenticity is subordinated to an agenda. The ideas and the storytelling work together in harmony.

Referencing their breakthrough 1984 debut, a colleague suggested to me that the Coens's latest work feels like Blood Simple with a quarter century of experience. But the blood spilled in No Country is not that simple.

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