NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007, directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, 122 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
Midway through the Coen Brothers’ masterful new adaptation of Cormac McCarthy‘s No Country For Old Men, the aging sheriff Ed Tom Bell is asked by another oldster what might be the origin of the wave of murder and violence sweeping across East Texas. “I always thought once you stopped hearing ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’am’ that the rest just follows” he says with resignation.
That is as good an explanation as the film offers for the near Biblical hellfire and retribution that gets served up in this bleak, almost-modern day (it is set in a semi-vague 1980) Noir Western. It would be tempting to describe the film as a return to form for the Coens, who have seen their critical stock fall in recent years, but truth is No Country for Old Men shows the brothers striking ominous chords they’ve never hit before.
Based on McCarthy’s 2005 novel, the story concerns three men tangled up in the aftermath of a drug-smuggling deal gone wrong. Vietnam vet Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is out hunting antelope in the desert terrain of the Lone Star State when he comes across a couple of shot-up trucks holding a group of shot-up men, one of whom has limped away to die holding a suitcase with $2 million in it. Llewelyn doesn’t think twice before grabbing the loot, and soon the quietly hulking Anton Chigurh (Javiar Bardem) is in pursuit, carrying an unrecognizable weapon that snuffs out a person’s life as if they were shut off with a switch. Anton dispenses with enough passers-by that aging Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is called into duty to survey the wreckage.
For much of the film the Coens give us as little information as they can. Like a nightmare, both Llewelyn and the viewer have very little backstory on the situation, as with people shooting and dogs a-chasing there is little time to do anything but shut up and run. Llewelyn doesn’t let the fact that he may be in over his head stop him from using his own. His senses sharpened as he finds himself as the prey, he deploys his wits in attempt to evade Anton’s brutal pursuit.
Bardem gives a quietly unnerving life to a character who can best be described as The Angel of Death. While $2 million might be enough to awaken many people’s murderous impulses, it is hard to imagine Anton enjoying anything money could buy him. With his ridiculous cherub haircut, Anton is beyond the reach of pleading or sympathy. As he visits numerous sleepy motels, it is a matter of reasoned efficiency that calmly compels him to leave all witnesses lying as dead like sacks of potatoes. Over the past decade Bardem has shown himself to be a actor who can grab you by the collar and shake you, but with Anton he has created a great screen monsters. It is the type of revelatory performance that is bound to dog him for the rest of his career.
The Coen brothers burst onto the American film landscape 23 years ago with a similar death and revenge thriller called Blood Simple, which showed off their witty camerawork and sharp-tongued dialogue. That zoomy camera and the smartly-spun dialogue became their trademark for a series of clever and amusing joy rides through assorted classic Hollywood genres. With 2003’s Intolerable Cruelty and 2004’s The Ladykillers, the Brothers received some of their worst reviews for films which — while truly horrible — did show them attempting to wriggle free of their trademark shtick.
Like their recent work, No Country for Old Men doesn’t remind you that you’re watching a Coen brothers film with every frame. Gone are the broad humor and showy camera moves but what lingers is their lack of sentimentality. The evil they show here evades explanation, as well the viewer’s sense of comfort and Hollywood’s expectation of a happy ending. What it captures is the gnawing unease of our moment, the sense that something dark and unknowable is on our trail. It also captures two of our most capable filmmakers discovering new depths in Hell.