No Country for Old Men

Anyone reading No Country for Old Men as a thriller about good vs. evil is a little short of the mark, I think. To me, it’s a Zen koan about life and death. The koan issues forth from the lips of Cormac McCarthy, the grizzled master who won the Pulitzer this year for his post-apocalyptic fable The Road. McCarthy’s prior 2005 novel — named after a line in a Yeats poem — serves as the basis for this film, a sharp return to seriousness for Joel and Ethan Coen after some larking around. The Coens’ movies often feature desperate men committing crimes, and also important characters perishing offscreen. McCarthy’s book has both, so it’s as if he wrote it for the Coens. They have responded with a fully alert film of quiet and considerable power that is only incidentally about finding two million dollars of drug cash and trying to run away with it.

Such a circumstance befalls Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin), trying to pick off antelopes in the Texas desert when he spots a blood trail in the sand. It leads him to the money, along with much flyblown death. Llewellyn makes off with the suitcase of cash, sending his wife (Kelly Macdonald) off to her mama’s house and dodging the bad men who want the money back. One of them is the baddest of bad men, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who travels with a captive bolt pistol, the sort used to punch holes in the hard skulls of cattle. Chigurh has an unplaceable southwestern/Latin accent, as if he emerged from the Texas/Mexico border itself, sent by the very earth to monitor the troubles of humans and occasionally end them.

In what amounts to a supporting role elevated to the status of moral center, Tommy Lee Jones walks uneasily through the movie as Ed Tom Bell, a sheriff close to retirement. Ed Tom feels social entropy in his bones: he observes that, once you stop hearing “sir” and “ma’am,” that’s when you know it’s over. The sheriff wants to find Llewellyn, to save him from certain disaster, but Llewellyn doesn’t want to be found. Chigurh will find him regardless; he always does. Tommy Lee Jones lets his voice go soft and high, almost feminine. He’s like Lillian Gish in Night of the Hunter, taking arms against casual savagery in defense of innocents, but without her gumption. The older Ed Tom gets, the more he feels the inevitability of Chigurh’s triumph.

As you may have gathered, No Country for Old Men is artsier and deeper than most anything else the Coens have done, with the exception of the willfully cryptic Barton Fink and the masterpiece Miller’s Crossing. Here they bring all their monkish technique to bear: there’s hardly any music, but such sounds as an air tank lightly settling on pavement and a candy wrapper uncrinkling itself on a gas-station counter dominate the soundtrack. The action begins in sun-baked majesty but eventually retreats into shadowy motel rooms. The story is set in 1980 but, less a few details, could unfold in 1880. Chigurh keeps coming, an art-house Michael Myers, and Javier Bardem instills him with a diabolical calmness. He’s not a psycho, not a monster, not the Devil: he’s a much bigger figure, Death itself, and there’s not much life around to rise in resistance to him. Nor would life, in the end, trump him anyway. Bardem’s Chigurh is patient, never showing even a flicker of anger; he’s the most frightening thing I’ve seen in a movie in a long time.

The film left me feeling slightly fatigued and fragile, but wanting to see it again. The Coens, like McCarthy before them, use a thriller structure to cut to the heart of the big mysteries. What can life mean if it ends? Does it mean more or less? Chigurh sometimes offers people a coin toss to determine whether they end or go on. One person complies, not understanding the gravity of the offer; another refuses, perhaps on the grounds that life and death shouldn’t be a game for one man to decide. No Country for Old Men tracks various people chasing after money or security, the things that are supposed to keep us happy and ward off darkness, but which mean so little that the pursuit of these things doesn’t even guarantee you an onscreen death. This is the blackest film noir in years, and a great American movie.

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2 Comments on “No Country for Old Men”

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