VIDEO: The trailer for No Country for Old Men
Country boy: Josh Brolin on the brink of fame. By Peter Keough.
No Country For Old Men | Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen | Written by Ethan and Joel Coen based on the novel by Cormac MCCarthy | with Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, Tess Harper, and Kelly MacDonald | Miramax | 122 minutes
At heart, the Coen Brothers’ movies are about death — arbitrary, relentless, insidiously clever, with a gallows sense of humor. An entity, in short, not unlike the Coens themselves. The filmmakers hover outside the frame, manipulating the characters and their deluded motivations toward horrible, unforeseen fates, invisible and smirking with glee and disdain. In their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, however, they allow death an on-screen credit in the form of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), an unstoppable assassin prone to remarks like “What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss?” and armed with a compressed air gun from a slaughterhouse, no less.
Perhaps because their spirit, or the lack thereof, has taken a human form, the Coens don’t inject themselves so much into this film’s style. Stripped of fancy editing and visual high jinks, devoid of a musical score, consisting of long shots of desolate Texas badlands and close-ups of equally weather-battered faces, No Country for Old Men is the brothers at their most polished, austere, and humorless.
McCarthy’s novel is pretty stark as well. He tries to summon Hemingway rather than Faulkner, and the page-turning text reads like a movie treatment — say, A Simple Plan meets The Terminator. Or maybe it’s The Seventh Seal, except that instead of playing chess with Death you shoot at him. The film opens with Bergmanesque Texas landscapes and Tommy Lee Jones intoning in that Tommy Lee Jones voice the folk philosophizing that is the novel’s and the movie’s biggest weakness.
Fortunately, the rest of the film is about as laconic as an interview with Tommy Lee Jones, except that every line is worth quoting. (“It’s a mess, ain’t it, Sheriff.” “If it ain’t, it’ll do until the mess gets here.”) Leathery range hound Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) doesn’t do much talking; he lets his actions speak for him. One day, while he’s out shooting for some food, what comes bubbling up is pretty crude: the flyblown aftermath of a drug deal gone bad. He follows a blood trail to a lone tree and finds another dead guy and a briefcase full of lots of money.
Llewelyn just might have gotten away with his haul if he hadn’t succumbed to his fatal flaw: compassion. He returns to the scene of the crime with water for one of the surviving drug dealers and is spotted by some interested parties. Barely escaping with his life (for the first of many times), he returns home and sends his saucy but not bright wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), off to the safety of her mother’s. Then he flees as well. He’ll spend the rest of the film dodging the above-mentioned interested parties, inexorable hitman Chigurh, and Jones’s folksy, philosophical, mostly ineffectual Sheriff Bell.
Aside from the bleak beauty of the faces and the terrain and the naked allegory of human futility and the triumph of death, the film, like the novel, delights in showing how things are done. If you want to know how to hide a briefcase in a motel, or tend to a shotgun wound while on the run, this is the movie to see. But unlike many other Coen movies and just about every other movie made these days, it shies away from the graphic depiction of the worst carnage. The violence strikes off screen and when least expected. Much like Chigurh, or the Coen Brothers, or death itself.