After a succession of poorly received cinematic pastiches, the Coen brothers are back from the wasteland of critical scorn, with a compelling new film that has been well received in U.K. and the U.S., where Rolling Stone magazine made it their film of the year. No Country For Old Men is a faithful recreation of Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy’s novel.
Superficially this is a tale of a drug deal gone wrong, and the chase that ensues to retrieve the missing money. However this is not just the return of Coen brothers; this is the return of the Coen brothers at the top of their game (it may well be a photo finish between this and Fargo for their career movie) so nothing is that (blood) simple.
Josh Brolin, still with his American Gangster moustache, rapidly becoming this generation's Nick Nolte, is perfect as Llewelyn Moss, the hunter who becomes the hunted, an overly self-confident ‘Nam vet who meets the ultimate enemy, death, who’s worse than fate. Javier Bardem, who portrays this malevolent angel of death, is just outstanding as Anton Chigurh, the most efficient killing machine to hit the screen since Luc Bresson’s Leon, a metaphysical, psychopathic hit man, who fills the frame with fear whenever he’s in it.
Bardem is probably at home now extending his trophy cabinet, for Chigurh is a manifestation of simmering evil that will become legend, and must be in line for a string of awards. His impossibly huge, lugubriously expressive face, flashes from threatening evil to charitable benevolence and back, as he dispenses death or occasionally mercy, in the arid, dust-encrusted land of West Texas waltzes and dry-land farms, where manners are worth more than money, and being neighbourly never used to get you killed. His weapon of choice is a compressed air cattle gun, the irony of cowboys getting slaughtered like cattle just one of the many Coen-esque flourishes that linger long after the credits roll.
Tommy Lee Jones is the local sheriff, Ed Tom Bell, a role he’s spent his whole career rehearsing for. His voice-over opens the film, his dreams end it, and it is he and his generation who no longer belong, as he comments, "Anytime you quit hearin' 'sir' and 'ma'am' the end is pretty much in sight." This is a man who is part of the action, but also part of the audience, almost among us as, stoically aghast, he watches the body count grow higher and the buzzing of the flies get louder. He realises the old ways he cherishes will wither and die, and if he’s not very careful, he along with them. When his deputy asks him if he thinks Moss knows what he's up against, his reply is dry, but full of portent: "I don't know, he ought to. He's seen the same things I've seen, and it's certainly made an impression on me." This is a sheriff whose cause of upset is not his failure to catch the criminals; this is a sheriff whose concern is for the safety of those people he has sworn to serve and protect, if he is able. Jones doesn’t play Sheriff Bell, he inhabits him, a sardonic sage, wise, knowing, but ultimately resigned to a future that is one of social apocalypse; and one that he is impotent to arrest.
Woody Harrelson plays southern gentleman bounty hunter Carson Wells, a retired special forces Colonel, another ‘Nam vet who crosses Chigurh, and finds his forces aren’t special enough. Kelly Macdonald, once the Scottish schoolgirl seductress of Ewan MacGregor in Trainspotting, plays Moss’s trailer park wife with an affecting mixture of vulnerability and sassy compassion, with an accent that sounds like it has floated on the desert winds from Corpus Christie for all time.
The Coen brother’s direction is a master class in economy and dynamics. They keep up all the suspense and tension that the chase element of the narrative needs, while rejecting any of the usual clichés normally demanded by Hollywood. The enigmatic ending will infuriate many, as the dots remain defiantly un-joined; however if this is how you feel, the point of the film has been well and truly missed.
The Coens find time to let the camera linger on sweet wrappers unfurling, socks being changed, or cowboy boots just being, to keep the fans of their quirks busy with much to debate. There is probably a film studies thesis being written now about the use of reflection or numerology in this film. The film plays out devoid of musical distraction, the sound of silence punctuated by gravel crushed by boot, distant gunfire, or lonesome bells tolling. The dialogue, much of it directly from the novel, has a litany of quotable lines, and maintains the oblique strategy of real conversation, never descending into the archetypical narrative signposts that real blockbusters substitute for dialogue. It is this dialogue that takes this modern western, for all its fast paced action, and turns it into an elegiac meditation on life, death, and the regressive nature of progress.
"You can't stop what's comin'. It ain't all waitin' on you. That's vanity." So says Bell’s uncle Ellis as the story draws to a close. It is this theme that is at the heart of the film, as Chigurh’s personification of death stalks good men and bad, in a totally arbitrary manner (with Harrelson’s bounty hunter comparing Chigurh’s mortal ambition to the bubonic plague, one wonders if there isn’t a homage to Bergman’s Death in the Seventh Seal lurking within this movie).
This is a film where death may rest on the flip of a coin, the flush of a toilet, a good thought that followed a bad thought. This is death that has no rationale, and it is this paradox that the Coens examine, how we are the only species to question death, to get angry at its indiscriminate cruelty. They show how thoughtless acts can mean the difference between a right turn into a car wash or a wrong turn into a street shoot-out. This is a film where good and evil do not dance with the synchronicity that a Die Hard All Over Again or Lethal Weapon 17 deliver, this is a film that sticks the cattle prod of reality between your eyes, and quietly tells you: it ain’t why, it just is.