From a Distance
Even slight distance in time can elicit amazement, as at the prescience of The Siege (1998), or revaluation of hosannas, as with Titanic (1997) and, in some future, The Dark Knight; or cooler judgment with regard to last year’s big winner, No Country for Old Men, more than sold out as one of nine Joel and Ethan Coen features at the 2008 Museum of Modern Art spotlight on Collaborators in the Collection.
Replacing the brothers’ habitual actors with imaginative others, their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel reflects the difficult plotting of Miller’s Crossing and the incomprehension of Fargo’s common citizens confronting evil. However, under the influence of the later Tarantino school of visual splatter -- does blood really run so copiously across wood floors? -- it never achieves the earlier works’ depth of droll relationships and character. Stone killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is similar to Gabriel Byrne’s Irish Tom in Miller’s Crossing in that he is said to have personal “principles [beyond] drugs or money,” but his life-or-death coin toss is only an inconsistent gimmick and, even to his name, he has no background. Terrell County sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) narrates a bit and has complexes to sort out, but his low-key folksy talk does not in the end enlighten much; indeed, the many characters’ faux Texas down-homeyness is hard to catch and provides unintended irony in that Spaniard Bardem’s cold inflectionless speech is easier to follow.
Uncerebral for the Coens, this one is geared to the youngish crowd, even with its gratuitous talk of an older generation scratching its head over emerging society’s motiveless malignancy. Truer complexity is in John Sayles’s Lone Star (1996), likewise about murder and sire-and-son sheriffs (plus an army colonel alienated from both his father and his son), where border-town Frontera reflects racial tensions with blacks as well as with the Mexicans who in No Country are caricature drug dealers, mariachi band members or sleepy crossing guards.
Unnerving Bardem’s mayhem is directed towards recovering cash if not drugs from a deal gone bad, as he totes an air-pressure livestock stun gun when more convenient than his usual silencer artillery. Detained by a deputy green enough to cuff a prisoner in front, then strangling the lawman with a sexual embrace and smile, he stalks by means of a transmitter implanted in the crisp hundred-dollar bills, blasting away lives along the way.
In an effective open-ended conclusion that first seems yet another glass-shattering fusillade just after he inspects his boot soles for blood, he hobbles off damaged but upright (knock wood, not into a sequel). He is simultaneously Bell’s quarry, and hunter, seeking the man with the two million.
Gunning for antelope rather than humans, trailer-camp husband Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) follows canine blood spoor to five riddled pickups among bodies and hungry flies. Attention fixes on a cargo of heroin curiously untouched, a dying driver begging for “agua,” and a dead man beneath a shade tree.
A good guy who loves wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), refuses a beery lady’s come-on, and is berated by a dying mother-in-law (Beth Grant), he is decent and “dumber than hell” to return with water to the massacre, barely escaping from Anton and two others.
Bounty killer Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) is hired by a Dallas drug lord, and Sheriff Bell none too successfully tracks his man. Trying to protect Carla Jean and the fortune, Llewelyn hides it and himself from one town to another. Having identified the man and his family, Anton pursues.
There are pauses for dry humor as well as bloodbaths and unnecessary spectacle in blowing up a car for surgical equipment, for Tom’s ruminations on violence and retirement, and weak attempts at tangential connections (Moss, Wells and a border guard are Vietnam vets). No answer is intended, and no sense of community in the deserted streets. Although an exciting movie, the Coens’ multi-award winner is in the end not among their memorable best. Honest irony requires distance, while wise screen violence needs emotional depth below surface technique.
(Released by Miramax Films and rated "R" for strong violence and some language.)