No Country for Old Men
No Country for Old Men, adapted by the Coen brothers from Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, is, quite simply, a flawless film. What is, perhaps, most amazing is that a film this terrifying, this violent, and this relentlessly nihilistic should also be this enthralling. If you see only one more movie this year, make sure it is this one.
While hunting in Texas’ desolate backcountry, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon the grisly scene of a drug deal gone wrong. Bullet-ridden bodies, bathed in crimson and bloating in the hot sun, litter the ground. Hundreds of pounds of cocaine sit unmolested in the back of one of the abandoned pickup trucks. A large satchel full of $2 million dollars rests under a nearby shade tree, clutched in the rigored hands of a man who no longer has any use for it. Stupid enough to think he can get away with it, Moss takes the money and runs.
But someone is coming for the money: the nightmarish apparition of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), an expressionless sociopath with a goofy haircut who speaks in riddles, flips coins for human lives, and wields and an awkward, if terrifying weapon. It isn’t long before Moss realizes Chigurh, relentless and seemingly unstoppable, is the predator and he is the prey. No matter how well he prepares, no matter where he flees, Chirgurh is never far behind. The two men engage in a lethal game of cat and mouse across hundreds of miles, leaving gory collateral damage in their wake.
But Chirgurh isn’t the only one looking for Moss. Local Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) figures out the clues for himself and hopes to get to Moss before Chirgurh does. Sheriff Bell knows his stuff. Patient and unflappable, he has seen it all…until now. It used to be that God, justice, and morality were something Bell could count on. Not anymore. Gone are the days when Bell felt he could make a difference, or even comprehended the evil he was charged to prevent. Exhausted, disillusioned and “overmatched,” Sheriff Bell has decided to retire. Finding Moss is the last thing he will do while in uniform.
No Country for Old Men marks a blistering return to form for the Coen brothers, and ranks alongside their superlative black masterpiece, Fargo. You will not see a more technically perfect film this year. No Country for Old Men takes its time, but is never remotely boring. Cinematographer Roger Deakin’s sunburnt photography is sparse, forlorn, and luxuriant. The film has a methodical, disciplined, exquisite attention to detail. Nothing is too small to capture the Coen’s attention.
The film squeamishly dwells on its violence, clinically rather than voyeuristically. With an instinctual understanding of Hitchcock’s rule that what we don’t see is far scarier than what we do see, the Coens have assembled scenes of quiet terror. Floorboards groan and shadows slink beneath doors, generating enough tension to make the most hardened moviegoer crawl out of their skin.
The dialogue in No Country for Old Men is raw, staccato, violent, and straight as an arrow, suffused with the dark comedy and exaggerated dialects for which the Coens are known. The humor, as in Fargo, is black, deadpan and bizarro. Each performance is faultless. Every character, no matter how minor, arrives on screen fully formed.
Brolin is terrific as the bewildered everyman who doesn’t know when to quit. He has had a good year. Best known as the older brother in 1985’s The Goonies, Brolin has exploded onto screens this year, giving superb performances in The Valley of Elah, American Gangster and Grindhouse. Tommy Lee Jones plays the character he’s perfected over the last decade — hound-dog faced, world-weary and cranky. There is a reason directors keep asking him to roll out his trademark — no one can do it half as well.
But years from now, when No Country for Old Men is still spoken of with reverent tones, it is Javier Bardem who will most often come up in conversation. Bardem’s terrifying predator is destined to become the stuff of movie folklore, a villain for the ages, spoken of in the same breath as Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader.
This riveting adaptation of McCarthy's text is remarkably faithful, not just to the author’s narrative, but also to his pervasively bleak worldview. McCarthy doesn’t allow for salvation or redemption, so don’t look for it here. God is spoken of often, but never seen — he is Gilroy’s “absentee landlord” or worse, dead at Nietzsche’s hand. No Country for Old Men is a film in which human beings are powerless to alter their destiny, where compassion imperils, and where those from whom you run the hardest distract you from those you never saw coming.
“You know how this is going to turn out don’t you,” one character asks another. In McCarthy's world of stifling randomness and chance, there is only one bloody certainty.