The Coen Brothers are two of the most distinctively voiced American filmmakers working today. Nobody else creates bleak mediations on existence or bittersweet morality tales quite like them at the top of their game. Their only Best Picture Academy Award win (why, Academy?) NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN finds itself somewhere in the middle, tonally speaking, but far towards the top of the pile in terms of craft and resonance.
A hunter becomes the hunted when he finds a suitcase full of money in the bloody aftermath of a drug deal. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) knows the Texan landscape and may have a few tricks up his sleeve to stay in front, but his pursuer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is relentless and without mercy…
It’s a pretty downbeat, pessimistic tale about pointless death and real evil going unpunished and yet you can’t escape a few trademark Coen dark comic barbs and witty asides. My favourite is Woody Harrelson’s snide response to his boss chastising him for sitting without permission, “You strike me as the kind of man who wouldn’t want to waste a chair”.
It’s easy to forget that this is a period movie given that it feels so timeless and fable-like. It’s Aesop with gallows humour and unfeeling violence. Roger Deakins’ peerless desert tableus makes these characters seem insignificant but their fight to survive insurmountable. Like his two-headed director, Deakins is obsessed by small details as well, a trait shared with the novella’s author Cormac McCarthy, who can happily spend two pages describing someone’s boots. Just look at how often characters are introduced identifying object-first, whether it’s distinctive clothing, a weapon, a vice in their life. The camera catches telling little details, things you’re going to have to pay attention to if you’re going to read every nuance in this rich tapestry.
Our hero (and I use that adjective pretty loosely) Llewelyn Moss is a pretty hopeless case, stumbling through life and surviving mostly by fluke. He can run in any direction but you always get a sense that he’s on borrowed time, that Texas isn’t big enough for him to hide from his pursuer for long. Yes, Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Bell is a more conventional, morally upstanding hero, but he’s mostly a passive presence, always arriving too late to the carnage and unable to stop it. Agonisingly, we’re not given closure to Llewelyn and his wife Carla Jean’s (Kelly Macdonald) story. I mean, there’s an end, but we’re not privy to it and the ambiguous options we’re presented with are various shades of horrible.
Anton Chigurh has ideas above his station. He’s not only an unfeeling monster but a self-absorbed hypocrite. He maliciously mentally tortures his victims before putting them out of their misery, making them think they’re part of a grander plan and a more noble purpose. The way Bardem plays these scenes, dead-eyed and amused by his control over the lives and death of others, is chilling to the core. Few things in cinema are scarier than Bardem’s impassive expression as he kills. The only person who sees right through him, sees him for the empty vessel he is and calls him on his bullsh*t is Carla Jean.
No Country for Old Men is one of those Oscar winners that really holds up, that keeps delivering different thrills time after time of watching. Bardem may be the highlight horribilis, but you shouldn’t forget he sterling work put in by Brolin, Jones and Macdonald in the less-showy roles that ground the story and make it compelling. It really is one of the great films about humanity’s dark side and the world refusing to go your way. SSP