No Country for Old Men, Dec. 07


Before No Country for Old Men, I had almost lost faith in the great Coen brothers. See, the Coens are as big a reason as any why I love movies. I grew up without cable, and one of the only videos I had was Raising Arizona, the Coens’ second feature. I’ve seen that film at least 50 times, and in many ways it is my all-time favorite. For two magical decades, the Coens embodied everything I believed filmmaking should be: tenacious, imaginative, shocking, and wry. They made films that were intellectually rigorous, wildly inventive, and darkly humorous. They left one shivering and giddy.

And then something happened. They lost it. They made two movies (Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers) so depressingly mediocre and average, I really felt as if they would never return to their former peaks. Thankfully, that is not the case. In adapting a novel for the first time, the Coens form an alliance with the mercurial genius Cormac McCarthy that is nothing short of revelatory. No Country for Old Men is simultaneously a tough on-the-lam thriller, a gallows comedy, and a devastating meditation on the inevitability of evil.

The story is very simple. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a silent stoic welder, spots a drug deal gone violently awry in the desert and finds a briefcase with two million dollars. Taking it, he soon finds himself hunted by a killer (Javier Bardem) of almost cosmic resolve and evilness. There is also the weary and overwhelmed Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who knows the story will not end well. From there the Coens tighten the screws.

Utilizing the phenomenal cinematography of Roger Deakins and startling, almost three-dimensional sound editing, the film moves from one desolate locale to the next, and the merciless inevitability of Moss’s plight crystallizes. That inevitability is personified by Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, a villain of metaphysical potency. At the film’s demented, apocalyptic core is Bardem’s ferocious, live-wired performance. He is an overwhelming force of chaos, with his creepy, gentle speech and bobbed haircut. On the other side is the wounded and moving work of Tommy Lee Jones, who has never been better (which is saying a lot) and could not be a more suitable fit for McCarthy and the Coens’ clipped, colloquial dialogue.

Much has been made about the film’s final third. Without revealing anything, I’ll say this: as thrilling and superbly crafted as it is, No Country for Old Men is far more than a thriller. It veers off into deep and unexpected moral and artistic terrain.

This is not an uncommon move for either McCarthy or the Coens, who  have always respected and challenged their audiences. Personally, I think we have an instant classic on our hands and one of the great literary adaptations. For all of the novel’s talk of fate’s dark machinations, it is a beautiful irony that fate worked so perfectly in the handoff between novelist and filmmaker. A