“You can’t stop what’s comin’.”
Big money leads to big trouble. It turns innocent people bad and it makes bad people dangerous. In Joel and Ethan Coen’s new film No Country For Old Men, the $2 million that turns up in a quiet corner of southwest Texas brings with it a hell ordinary people are not equipped to comprehend. Bullets fly, blood flows and many people meet an ugly end. Those who survive are left only to question what it all portends.
There are many movies yet to be released in 2007, but I’ll be surprised if there is one that is better than this. It’s easily the best movie of the year so far and in the warm afterglow of seeing it, it’s tempting to call it the best Coen movie ever. Some have already been so bold, but to my mind it’s a little early for judgements like that.
It’s also tempting to draw easy comparisons between No Country for Old Men and the Coens’ earlier work. Though there are similarities, particularly to Blood Simple and Fargo, the familiar themes and ideas that have enriched their other films have here been taken to an unexpected level of maturity. This is like no other Coen movie you have seen before. Forget comparisons. Everything they’ve done in 25 years of filmmaking has been a prelude to this work of art.
A favorite sticking point among people who don’t like the Coen Brothers is the humor perceived as a smug condescension toward their characters. There is humor in No Country for Old Men to be sure, but any whiff of smugness has been slapped right off its face. It’s a splash of cold water. It’s startling. It’s invigorating. It’s their most perfect fusion of thriller and mood piece yet. It’s an art film with suspense to spare. It turns out the Coens have learned a thing or two about playing the audience over the years and their skills are on full display here. There is one sequence in particular involving two adjacent motel rooms that will leave you exhausted, fingers dug into the armrests.
“Baby, things happened. I can’t take ’em back.”
One of my favorite segments is a chase through the desert at dawn. Early morning light is supposed to be a symbol of hope, but the Coens have turned the feeling on its head. It’s a nightmare. As a lone man runs for his life, fleeing from truck, from human and from dog, there is only terror. When he reaches safety and the sun has risen, he seems to understand that the chase has just begun and though he holds all the cards, the odds are against him. If his doom has not already been sealed, playing this hand could get him killed. Despite the danger, he has two million reasons to take his chances.
Suspense aside, the real heart of No Country for Old Men is a wistful and poetic screenplay adapted by the Coens themselves from Cormac McCarthy’s novel. How faithfully it was adapted I can’t say, but the screenplay stands on its own. It’s a thing of beauty that reads on the page almost as well as it plays on the screen. It’s rich with the sound of words and turns of phrase. Dialogue plays like music. The speech is common yet lyrical.
In bringing their wonderful screenplay to life, the Coens have assembled a terrific cast who stand out even in a year full of great performances. There is Josh Brolin as Llewelyn Moss, the stoic ex-soldier who first finds the money. He’s a decent and no-nonsense man, but he’s cursed with a dangerous stubbornness. Brolin somehow makes a man not prone to expressing himself seem likable.
Dressed down but still pretty as always, Kelly MacDonald is his sweet wife Carla Jean. She’s the innocent of the piece. Trading her natural Scottish brogue for a Texas Trailer Twang, she quickly charms you with only a small amount of screen time.
Rounding out the good guys, Tommy Lee Jones is sheriff Ed Tom Bell. He’s the wise but weary narrator and audience surrogate. Already worn down by a lifetime of seeing the worst side of people, he seeks to understand this new violence that is being visited upon his small town. Jones seems to feel this kind of character in his bones and he owns every scene with nothing more than a look and a word or two.
“That’s alright. I laugh myself sometimes. There ain’t a whole lot else you can do.”
Not every actor can inhabit a Coen character convincingly. It takes a way with words and a full commitment to the odd sort of stylization at which the Brothers excel. All three of these actors deliver marvelously, but as good as Brolin, MacDonald and Jones are, the most unforgettable performance and character is Javier Bardem as the enigmatic killer Anton Chigurh.
In the part of Texas the film is set, the horizon seems to go on forever and you feel as though you might be able to see danger coming from miles away. Though literal storm clouds gather early in the film, they offer only a hint of what Chigurh brings with him as he glides into town like some kind of implacable black ghost. You don’t see this character or this performance coming. Looking supernaturally pale in the Texas sun, Bardem is determined, unwavering and inevitable. There might be the faintest glimmer of pleasure in his eyes as he toys with his prey, but it is not friendly.
This is one of the most memorable screen villains in a long long time. He might not have the easy to remember catch phrases of a Hannibal Lecter, but he’s unforgettable, haunting your imagination for days afterward. One thing is certain: after Anton Chigurh, you’ll never look at the implied safety of a dead bolt in the same way again and the ominous hiss of a compressed air tank will give you shivers.
Even the Coen comedies have a strong current of melancholy to them, but No Country for Old Men is their most serious and sadly reflective. It’s steeped in a longing for a past gone by; of things lost and chances not taken. No punches are pulled and it borders on hopelessness. This is a mood that leads right up to the ending. I don’t want to say too much about it, but those expecting a conclusion that neatly fits the crime-thriller surface trappings of No Country are going to be disappointed. It’s a messy ending that reaches for poetry rather than closure. It leaves you thinking rather than soothing you with the idea that all is well in the world.
Unlike Fargo, we’re not even given so much as the comfort of a three-cent stamp, just the hope that maybe something better awaits at the ultimate end of the trail. In the mean time don’t struggle, the film seems to be saying. Submit to fate and take your chances. Your odds are at least 50/50. Or as Anton Chigurh says to one of his victims: “Call it.”
My expectations going into this movie were enormous, begging to be unmet and disappointed. In the end, they were easily exceeded and I wonder now how I could ever have thought otherwise. I got exactly what I wanted and somehow left the theater with more than I thought possible. Though I have ultimately treasured them all, I’ve never so unreservedly loved a Coen Brothers movie on first viewing as much as I did No Country for Old Men.
Is it the best Coen movie ever? Maybe. Ask me again later when the Texas dust has settled and the blood has had time to dry.
No Country for Old Men. USA 2007. Written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Based upon the novel by Cormac McCarthy. Cinematography by Roger Deakins. Edited by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (as Roderick Jaynes). Music score composed by Carter Burwell. Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson and Kelly MacDonald. 2 hours 2 minutes. Rated R for strong graphic violence and some language. 4.5 stars (out of 5)