A New Coen Country
No Country for Old Men unfolds like a combination of several previous movies from the Coen Brothers. It boasts the Texas setting and unnerving quiet of Blood Simple; it features a local law enforcer slowly tracing the clues to a major transgression involving money, a la Fargo. It juxtaposes a deadly personification of evil against the good in other characters, as in Raising Arizona. And then a rug gets pulled along the way, and the movie ends in a way most movies wouldn't, the denouement demanding a period of long reflection from its audience.
This film is at once very Coen, yet not like anything brothers Joel and Ethan have done before. The craft is there -- impeccable, really, but at the same time, it's been refined enough to reach a higher plane. For example, visual composition has always been a Coen forte, but my problem with their earlier work involved the obtrusiveness of their shots' obvious formality. I felt they were just shot off of storyboards, so an organic feel was missing. This is not a problem in No Country. There are plenty of scenes here that are distinctly Coen, based on the camera movement, or what the camera chooses to focus on, or the mounting of tension -- but no longer do they carry that feel of "stuntiness." The cleverness of their set-ups appears perfectly suited to whatever scene they happen to be setting up.
Gone, also, is a soundtrack, another Coen specialty. But still intact is a subtle, black humor. The source material is a Cormac McCarthy novel, purportedly unremittingly dark; thus, I suppose that bit of humor is necessary to spare us from encroaching despair. But with the Coens' past movies, that humor often became the pervasive tone; here, the darkness remains the primary color, and the humor... well, when one character tells a sad story with a wry observation and his listener tries to restrain himself from laughing, he admits sometimes all one can do is laugh. And that's how the humor works here.
The story concerns three primary characters: a good (Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell), a bad (Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh), and a foolishly bold (Josh Brolin as Llewelyn Moss). It's Moss who happens upon a stash of money at the apparent aftermath of a deadly drug deal gone wrong, and, against better judgment, decides to take it. Chigurh becomes his dreaded pursuer, and Sheriff Bell is the one who wants to save Moss from what is certain death. It's a localized scenario, but what the movie skillfully does is increase its philosophical scale ever so slowly. Chigurh becomes the personification of lawlessness, Moss becomes the representative of those who must live in the face of the lawlessness, and Sheriff Bell becomes the lament of the lawless times.
At first, the movie points to a more obvious reading of this lament -- the aging Sheriff Bell seems to long for a time when the world didn't seem so cruel, when violence wasn't as rampant as it is now, when criminal activity didn't show such a blatant disregard for civil life. But steadily it reveals that his disillusionment goes deeper -- that there's a realization things haven't necessarily gotten worse, it's just that his perspective has shifted to allow the reality that things have ever always been this bad. The movie opens up this particular perspective to us -- that the lives taken by Chigurh are, sadly, in the end, relative specks, that the earth is here to swallow us as quickly as it spit us out, and not even Chigurh, who sometimes feels unstoppable, who operates on a warped set of strict principles, is immune from random and merciless chaos.
No Country for Old Men may be bleak, but it observes that bleakness in a matter-of-fact manner, foregoing sensationalism. Its set pieces are amazing exercises in suspense, but they don't feel out of place nor do they call attention to themselves. The humor is merely a thin coating over layers of despair concerning the fear of meaninglessness, randomness, godlessness. The Coen Brothers have either given us a movie that happily works against their worse instincts, or their instincts have just realized a greater potential.
(Released by Miramax Films and rated "R" for strong violence and some language.)
Review also posted at ww.windowtothemovies.com.