No Country For Old Men
By Devin D. O’Leary
No Country For Old Men
Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
Cast: Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem
With its quick, brutal flashes of violence, its off-kilter characters and its deadpan funny dialogue, No Country For Old Men is unmistakably the work of indie auteurs Joel and Ethan Coen. Except that it isn’t, exactly. The film is based on the book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy. The plot, dialogue and characters of this modern-day, neo-noir Western are lifted--frequently word-for-word--from McCarthy’s text. The result is a seamless blending of artistic worlds, a bloody, funny, beautifully shot, faultlessly acted thriller that has to rate as one this year’s best films.
Mining the same sort of straight-faced territory they did in films like Blood Simple, Fargo and Miller’s Crossing, the bros. Coen take us on a dark and twisted ride through West Texas crime and punishment.
In a cast filled with ringers (all of them new to the Coen canon), Josh Brolin (Grindhouse, Hollow Man) surprises the most as our compelling lead character, Llewelyn Moss. Lew is a poor but principled trailer-dwelling welder who lives within spitting distance of the Rio Grande. While out hunting wild game one afternoon, he stumbles across a major drug deal gone horribly wrong. Dozens of bullet-riddled bodies litter the dusty landscape. Bricks of Mexican heroin fill one pickup truck. Everyone is dead as a post. Lew, putting two and two together, figures there was some money involved in this deal. Sure enough, he locates a satchel packed with just over $2 million in cold, hard cash.
After some brief and characteristically tacit deliberation, Lew figures he’d better take that money. Unfortunately, the people to whom it belongs don’t much appreciate its loss. They send a thoroughly humorless assassin named Anton Chigurh (Spaniard Javier Bardem, Before Night Falls) to retrieve it. Chigurh is a mysterious figure with a tragically bad haircut and a gruesomely novel method of dispatching his prey. Unleashed into the West Texas desert, he becomes a figure of unstoppable dread. Bardem, in his first major English-speaking role, cuts a chilling figure as the cool-headed, straight-talking serial killer. He’s like a Terminator on Valium, and damn is he one scary cuss. If the scene in which Chigurh gives a gas station clerk a choice of life or death at the flip of a coin doesn’t win Bardem an Oscar, it will at least cement him as one of the most indelible villains in recent memory.
About the only thing standing between Chigurh and Lew is small-town sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones, surrendering again to the lure of law enforcement, but doing it oh-so-well). Jones’ slow-going, easy-drawling, third-generation lawman spends most of the film just trying to figure out what the hell is going on around these parts. It’s not simply a matter of following the dead bodies, tracking down the money and saving Lew. Set as it is in 1980, No Country For Old Men captures the moment when major drug trafficking cartels started to spill across the border, bringing violence and mayhem with them. Ed Tom is a traditional fellow, a proud son of Texas with a dose of John Wayne in his blood. He isn’t built for this amoral new world in which men like Anton Chigurh kill not for money or for revenge but for the pure bloody satisfaction of it all. Lew Moss, a hearty Jack-of-all-trades, is confident he can outsmart this situation. Ed Tom Bell is cut from the same tough Texas cloth, but he’s wise enough to realize he’s probably too damn out-of-date to survive in this lawless new land. Ed Tom’s laconic narration formed the backbone of McCarthy’s spare novel, and it is used as bookends here, grounding the film in melancholy philosophical territory.
With the exception of one minor character who gets the boot and a tiny spit-shine to the final fate of another, the Coens’ screenplay mirrors McCarthy’s narrative to a T. The dialogue, blackly funny and filled with wonderful turns of phrase (Deputy Wendell: “It’s a mess, ain’t it, sheriff?” Sheriff Bell: “If it ain’t, it’ll do ’til the mess gets here.”), keeps the film from becoming too dark and depressing. In fact, aside from the occasional outbursts of violence (certainly the roughest the Coens have contributed), the film has a rather light, madcap tone. With the unstoppable Chigurh chasing the unflagging Lew, the film could be viewed as a real-life “Tom and Jerry” cartoon in which all the horrible things that cat and mouse do to one another are genuine, gory and potentially life-threatening.
Structured like a chase film with a cliff for an ending, No Country For Old Men builds up significant velocity and tension before surrendering to its more philosophical nature. Those expecting tidy closure prior to the end credits are forewarned that the Coens like to shatter expectations. The film ends abruptly, with the nature of good and evil unresolved and the fate of justice completely up in the air. It’s the sort of thing that will divide audiences into love and hate camps, but it’s faithful to the book and certainly leaves you thinking. Funny, scary, violent and thoughtful? Sounds like the Coens through and through.
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