No Country for Old Men
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen (Novel by Cormac McCarthy)
Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, Garret Dillahunt, Tess Harper, Barry Corbin, Stephen Root, Rodger Boyce, Beth Grant
R (for strong graphic violence and some language)
An unstoppable force moves through the dry landscape of Texas searching for his stolen cash in the Coen Brothers’ modern western No Country for Old Men.
The night hides Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) from prying eyes as he sifts through the site of a literal Mexican standoff. Amongst the wreckage, he discovers a pile of cash that will help he and his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) move onto a better life. However, the night also brings with it a menace that will pursue him and his ill-gotten gains until only one of them survives.
Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is the meticulous assassin relentlessly stalking Moss leaving behind him a path of indiscriminate death. It is his utter disregard for human life that have prompted some to equate his character to the idea of the Grim Reaper, a comparison that is only mildly appropriate considering many of his actions in the film.
Tracking both Chigurh and Moss is Ed Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) who follows in his father’s footsteps as sheriff of the small town in and around which the action begins. His goal is to save Moss from the fate that is likely to befall him should Chigurh catch up.
The Coen Brothers have a long history of taking on offbeat subjects, tweaking traditional storytelling techniques and applying their morose sense of style to the proceedings. Far more dark and less humorous than their past dark comic work (Fargo), No Country for Old Men marks the first time the pair have adapted a modern literary work to the big screen, taking Cormac McCarthy’s critically maligned novel and putting the big screen treatment on it.
The story is a relatively straightforward one. It’s little more than a long chase film. The literary diversions and philosophical questions are largely superficial and have little emotional impact on the audience. It’s thanks to Brolin’s charismatic lead performance that the audience even cares about the end results of the chase, which is an improvement over their last critical success Fargo, a film in which the lead character is effectively portrayed, but has little impact on the plot of the film.
Jones isn’t an actor I have found interesting very often in the past. His characters have always been emotionally bereft or incredibly one-dimensional. This time, however, I found myself warming up to his time-battered sheriff, which helped to accentuate that aspect of the film’s title.
Harrelson, on the other hand, has usually given deep, multi-faceted performances, but this time he’s stuck in a role that is utterly unnecessary to the plot. His existence is only to provide historical reference for the Chigurh character, which could have been better accomplished through use of flashbacks, but that would have taken away the linear nature of the film, one of the Coens’ techniques.
When looking at the history of villains, there are dozens that have more emotional, physical and moral depth. The character of Anton Chigurh, as embodied by the normally exceptional Bardem, is nothing more than a one-note, single-minded killing machine. That might fit within the confines of the script, but therein lies the film’s problem. A great villain needs to have some redeeming quality or, if not, some larger purpose. More akin to the character Jack Palance played in Shane, Chigurh doesn’t seem to exist for anything more than a plot device. It’s like he’s just part of the story and for whatever reason, it makes the character less evil and more commonplace, which is all the more unusual considering his unique way of killing his victims.
No Country for Old Men does many things well, including the masterful scene in the Hotel Eagle in which Moss sits alone in his dark hotel room waiting for his pursuer to come and try to take his case of money from him. There was no sequence in the past few years that was as tense and chilling as that one. Unfortunately, that pace is not kept and the rest of the film pales in comparison.
While sharing a number of stylistic similarities with other Coen films, this one seems to avoid actual violence. In Fargo, some of the scenes are entirely too graphic, almost cartoonish. Here, they are predominantly left off-screen, bring the audience into the grizzly details after the fact. It’s an admirable approach and certainly pays homage to a pre-Peckinpah vision of Western violence while lightly blending with a Wild Bunch-style.
If there’s one thing I appreciate in the film more so than anything else is that it plays like an elegy for the Western genre. It’s not a milieu that is entirely dead, but it is a far cry from the glory days of my grandfather’s westerns when John Wayne was the preeminent cowboy. No Country for Old Men suggests that the modern ideas of what constitutes cinematic viability are so different for modern audiences that the film industry is no longer a place for the same sensibilities that made Wayne a legend.
August 6, 2008