No Country for Old Men

[Note: Now that No Country for Old Men is last year’s Best Picture, I felt I should post the review I wrote way back in pre-Oscar times. Warning, there’s a spoiler.]

Until the end credits, there isn’t one bar of music in the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men. In fact, the bulk of the first third of the film is as visually empty as the soundtrack; it’s Middle-of-Nowhere, Texas, 1980: beautiful in its bleakness—untamed, unpopulated. The photography, by the brothers’ longtime associate, Roger Deakins, is always sumptuous, but it works better here than in most of their films; this film needs to be implacably picturesque and distant—the world of this movie isn’t quite real, not quite full.

The story follows around Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) who, on a solitary hunting trip, stumbles on the remains of a mass execution of drug dealers in the desert. We never figure out much about them—and neither do the police—but they were certainly the victims of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a merciless killing machine. Moss is the kind of man who thinks of himself as a modern-day cowboy, but, in actuality, is just a Vietnam vet whose “home on the range” is in a trailer park. He is so deadpan that his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), doesn’t believe him when he remarks off-handedly that the valise he’s brought back from his hunting expedition is loaded with cash. Moss does not realize, however, that his cash came equipped with a tracking device. After Carla Jean is safely away with her batty mother, Moss finds himself playing cat-and-mouse with Chigurh. Though he’s no Rambo, the vet is resourceful; his laconic understatement makes him the perfect foil for Chigurh, the latest word in sardonically unfeeling inhumanity. While not perfect, Moss is scrappy and not easily frightened; he acts the way we’d like to think we would in the face of robotic evil.

And then he’s killed off.

As the trusty old sheriff, Ed Tom Bell, Tommy Lee Jones enters into the movie relatively late. Dealing only with Carla Jean, he’s practically a bystander, never directly involved in the A-plot, only watching from afar. Jones’s character is a particular specialty of the Coens—like Frances McDormand’s cop in Fargo, he’s old-fashioned, glib, and utterly straightforward. On the surface he may seem like a typical Tommy Lee Jones part, too—his Man in Black without the zazz—but he’s not. Ed Tom Bell is outmoded. Like the rest of the Texans here, he’s tough and reserved, yet older enough to think he’s seen it all. But he’s never seen anything like this.

In the beginning, his understatement makes him seem as dead as the deathly flat landscape, but there’s something in him that dies later on. (And Jones lays it to rest gracefully.) Like all cowboy heroes, he has to be internalized and stoic, but he, like Moss, is out of his league. Unfortunately, that seems more troublesome than any of the graphic murders Chigurh commits; are the Coens really saying that mechanized evil (a single-minded clockwork orange) has rendered traditional American goodness obsolete? This apocalyptic revelation leads Bell—a sheriff so old and craggy that the bags under his eyes couldn’t be taken as carry-on—to finally retire.

One may be led to think that No Country for Old Men is a tract about evil, but the evil embodied by Bardem’s character is rarified to the point of absurdity. He and his motivations are more primitive than any of the other characters. I can only recall one shot from the entire movie that might lead one to believe that Chigurh is layered: his reaction when he realizes that Moss has the gumption to fight back. Bardem’s portrayal is quietly effective, but one-note; he’s too much of an allegory to be believable. Chigurh lacks a past or even a context. He’s menacing, but too far removed from the reality of evil to be rationally feared. The Coens are talented enough to ratchet up the suspense in ways that befit such a proficient thriller, but Chigurh is a monster better suited for horror films.

The movie is more accurately about fate than evil—fate being a significantly more powerful force in this world. Much of this fatalism is probably due to Western-gothic writer Cormac McCarthy, on whose novel this movie is based; but that’s not to say that the Coens haven’t had a long and solid history of determinism in their movies. Criminals, in particular, seem to lack control over their destinies, and in Barton Fink, John Tuturro’s screenwriter is entrapped by the old Hollywood system. There, however, the hero’s flaws and missteps partly brought him to his downfall; here, Moss only makes one mistake—being bold enough to defy Chigurh. Unlike several minor characters, Llewellyn meets his demise off-screen; the motivation behind that device is obscure, but ultimately cruel. He never even stood a chance.

Fortunately, the Coens are smart enough filmmakers to allow room for caveats. There is some semblance of love and compassion and human feeling here, even if it’s piled under layers of toast-dry Texan drawl. And, though defeated, Bell ends the movie on a note of tentative faith. Maybe he’s not been destroyed after all.

[2 December 2007]

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11 thoughts on “No Country for Old Men

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