2007 // USA // Joel and Ethan Coen // November 29, 2007 // Theatrical Print
A - What can a good man do in a world where he is confronted with evil so foul he can barely comprehend it? This is the question at the heart of Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men, a film that that is quite unlike anything I have seen this year. On the surface, it is a masterfully constructed thriller, brimming with images that smolder and words that reverberate. If this were all that the Coens had achieved with No Country, it would still be a worthy film. There are deeper currents, however, beneath the "dismal tide," as one character describes the onslaught of bullets, blood, and madness that is slouching towards Texas border country. The Coens employ fear, despair, and a dash of their trademark absurdism to probe the nature of morality in a post-faith world. I have never read the novel by Cormac McCarthy, but most reviews of the original work cite these themes. The Coens are a somewhat diagonal choice for the translation of an existential contemporary-Western novel, but they prove more than up to the task.
The exact dimensions of the plot are murky in places—and deliberately so, I think—but the central conflict is timeless. In the West Texas desert of 1980, Vietnam veteran Llewelyn Moss stumbles across a drug deal gone bad while hunting antelope. Moss absconds from the scene with $2 million in a satchel, setting into motion a chase between himself, county sheriff Ed Tom Bell, and an enigmatic psychopath named Anton Chigurh ("Sugar?," Moss asks quizzically.) To describe the film's events in more detail would not only invite spoilers, but would be beside the point. What happens, and to whom, and when, is secondary to the implications of this drama for the moral order of the universe. Crucially, Moss is the protagonist, but Bell is the narrator. Moss' level-headed, practical resourcefulness, and his ragged, trailer-park life, invite us to root for him. However, the events of the film unfold through the reactions of Bell the aging lawman—although not necessarily through his eyes. The Coens signal in Bell's opening narration that the story has ensnared him, even implicated him, just as it will the viewer:
The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure. It's not that I'm afraid of it... You can say it's my job to fight it but I don't know what it is anymore. More than that, I don't want to know. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He would have to say, okay, I'll be part of this world.
There is so much that No Country gets right, it's hard to know where to begin. I'll start with the acting, which is pitch-perfect across the board. Josh Brolin plays Moss with a dusty, squinty canniness, coaxing the viewer to gradually admire him and fear for his fate. Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald disappears entirely into Moss' anxious wife, Carla Jean, who despairs over her husband's schemes but retains a furtive confidence in him. In one moving scene near the end, she proudly describes Moss: "Llewelyn can take care of hisself... He can take all comers." Much has been made of Spanish actor Javier Bardem's portrayal of Chigurh, a relentless killer who wields a pneumatic cattle stun gun and enormous, silenced shotgun. Chigurh's presence in this story is never entirely explained, but Bardem is less interested in what specifically motivates him than in conveying the sense of a perfectly motivated man. Or thing, perhaps, for Chigurh seems less a man than an amoral murdering machine from some near-future dystopia. No such luck. Chigurh is unmistakably flesh and blood, and wandering the dark streets of small-town Texas with death on his mind. The future, it seems, is here, and God help us all.
The real standout in No Country, however, is Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Bell. The crags and sags that characterize Jones' lived-in features have become iconographic in their own right, a sort of shorthand for the weariness and ragged ideals of modern America. Jones' occasional typecasting for his looks and accent make is easy to forget how extraordinary he is as an actor. He is one of the few modern American performers who can energize a scene by toning it down. Instead of ratcheting up a solitary emotion until it is bleeding from his pores, Jones layers emotion on top of emotion with nothing more than the flicking of his eyes and the inflection in his voice.
No Country is the most perfectly realized work of art from Joel and Ethan Coen since their harrowing 1990 gangster-noir epic, Miller's Crossing. (I will leave it for another time whether the deliriously funny The Big Lebowski should be considered a worthy intermediary, given its status as the greatest late-blooming comedy of the past two decades.) The Coens have always exhibited a meticulous, off-center character in their direction. This sensibility is not unique to the brothers, but they seem to be among the few directors who employ it in consistently original ways, even while aping familiar genre conventions. The film noir elements in No Country have appeared previously in their filmography and in purer form, but rarely with such naked intensity.
No Country is a technically superb film, but I barely noticed. The story produces such a relentless vortex that I could only appreciate the skill on display during a second viewing. The Coens excel at conjuring menace from the familiar. Their frequent cinematographer Roger Deakins, fresh from the visual mastery he exhibits in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, discovers the tension within another kind of Western landscape. He captures the remorseless character of hardscrabble desert soil, indigo pre-dawn skies, and an endless succession of dim, seedy, suffocating hotel rooms. Seldom have such banal surroundings seemed to conceal such peril. Remarkably, No Country has virtually no music. It wasn't until my second viewing that I noted the low, nearly subliminal ambient tones that underlie one extremely tense scene.
The critical reception to No Country seems to fall into three camps. There are those who laud it as an essentially perfect film; those who regard it as remarkable but flawed; and a handful who revile it as misguided or ineffectual or monstrous... or something. I fall on the positive end of this spectrum, although some lines of dialogue have nagged me as unnecessarily cryptic. In what is otherwise a modern masterpiece, these missteps are all the more noticeable.
No Country is, I will concede, a challenging film. Its narrative is not difficult to comprehend, but the questions it poses, and the potential answers it offers, are disquieting. I can appreciate that when such a perfectly rendered thriller takes several unusual turns in its final scenes, it can be bewildering or even infuriating. However, No Country is an intentional jolt to this sort of cinematic complacency, and the power of the film's ethos lies within its unconventional resolution. Suffice to say that I found the conclusion both satisfying and haunting, something that few films achieve.