"No Country for Old Men": Joel and Ethan Coen's Masterpiece By Emanuel Levy

in 60th Cannes Film Festival

by Emanuel Levy

Brilliant from first frame to last, Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men, a mesmerizing adaptation of the acclaimed novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Cormac McCarthy, is their best film to date, an undisputed masterpiece that impresses on any number of levels.

After a whole decade of making disappointing features, including the goofy and trivial O Brother Where Art Thou? the unwatchable Tom Hanks-starring remake The Ladykillers, and the silly screwball divorce comedy Intolerable Cruelty, the Coen Brothers have smartly gone back to their roots and to what they do best, as manifest in their “smaller”, more regional films, such as Blood Simple (1985) and Fargo (1996), arguably their last great work.

In many ways, the 2003 novel represents a perfect match between McCarthy’s uniquely American literary sensibility and the Coens’ uniquely American cinematic sensibility, resulting in the helmers’ most mature and poignant work to date, a contemporary Western that is effective both as a suspenseful thriller and as a philosophical meditation about the roots and nature of violence as an integral part of the American Way of Life.

In this and other respects, No Country for Old Men is the Coens’ least movieish work, one that is self-reflexive without being self-conscious, a film that is based on strong literary material rather than old Hollywood movies. Each of the Coens’ films up until now paid a tribute, or was inspired by, or was homage to a particular Hollywood genre and often a specific film. For example, the stylish black-and-white noir The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) was more of a tribute to The Postman Always Rings Twice and countless classic noirs of the 1940s than a movie that had life and identity of its own. In contrast, No Country for Old Men seems to be deceptively simple but is actually highly ambitious in its intellectual and metaphysical concerns, yet amazingly without being at all pretentious or overreaching.

The book (and the film’s plot) is set in 1980, when rustlers have given way to drug-runners, and small towns have become free-fire zones. However, as a movie, No Country for Old Men, like most good Westerns, transcends its particular historical time and geographical locale.

Anchored by three terrific lead performances, from Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, and Javier Bardem, and three supporting ones, by Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, and Tess Harper, No Country for Old Men, displays meticulous attention to detail, from the precise mise-en-scene to the calibrated tone to the visual look and ominous sound.

Visually striking, the first reel consists of two or three sequences that are nothing short of brilliant. A crime suspect, whose identity is unclear at this point, is arrested by an officer, but as soon as they arrive in the station, the suspect strangles his captor to death in the most primitive way – with his handcuffs. He then kills an innocent driver to get a car, using a gun made for slaughtering cattle. From that point on, the criminal – Chigurh (Javier Bardem) – walks around with one or two of these huge guns, often evoking nervous laughter just by his sheer appearance and serious way he goes about his “job”.

The story proper begins when hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds a pick-up truck surrounded by a sentry of dead men. A load of heroin and two million dollars in cash are still in the back. Later that night, when Moss returns to the scene of the crime (with a bottle of water for the one wounded man who’s still alive), he’s chased and shot by Chigurh. Missing his target, Chigurh unleashes his nasty dogs into a nasty chase that continues in the water. The river scene, with Moss trying to escape the swimming dogs behind him, is a so powerful and outrageous scene that it inevitably evokes laughter and cathartic release when the dogs get shot in a close-up!

When Moss takes the money out of impulse, he sets off a chain reaction of catastrophic violence that not even the law – embodied by the aging and disillusioned Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) – can contain. A single, random act of theft thus ricochets in many unforeseen and unpredictable directions, affecting the lives of numerous people along the way, with a carnage ratio seldom seen in an American movie (and that would include works by Tarantino and Rodriguez).

Moss’ decision to lift the money posits a moral dilemma for us as viewers, asking us to take stance, namely, given the situation, could we resist the temptation of doing the same thing? Would we have gone to the police to report about the cash?

As Moss tries to evade his pursuers – in particular the mysterious mastermind Chigurh who flips coins for human lives – the film simultaneously strips down the American crime drama, broadening its concerns to encompass themes as ancient as the Bible and as contemporary as headlines torn from today’s newspapers.

Like the book, No Country for Old Men features a visceral, multi-layered and contemporary saga, a sinewy, suspenseful, humor-spiked thriller that revolves around an honest American man who happens upon $2 million in cash on the Texas borderlands. Also like the novel, the movie offers a provocative meditation on good and evil in the modern American West, a place that has grown into a land more violent and lawless than the mythic frontier of yore.

Set in West Texas, the film is brilliantly shot by the Coens’ regular cinematographer Roger Deakins, who captures the austere and rugged landscape (according to the press notes, the movie was shot in New Mexico) in stunning tableaux that match perfectly the spare dialogue and somber tone of the film..

The film’s first hour is almost silent, with little dialogue and almost no music, depicting Chigurh chasing Moss, and then the Sheriff bringing up the tail. As co-writers and co-directors, the Coens emphasize the darkly humorous and humanly revealing interplay between Llewelyn Moss, after discovering the money in the wreckage of drug deal gone wrong, and the two antithetical men who are tracking him: the chilling psychopath Chigurh on the one extreme, and the town’s profoundly decent Sheriff Bell on the other.

No Country for Old Men is the closest the Coens have ever come to making an action feature, in which most of the screening time is taken by numerous chases, of different kinds and lengths. Nonetheless, as usual, the Coens play with genre conventions and subvert genre expectations. For starters, the movie dispenses with simplistic psychology and dramatic motivation. There is no attempt to explain or to understand the behavior of the psychopathic killer Chigurh, or, for that matter, that of the good old American cowboy Moss, who not only risks his own life, but also the lives of his naive country wife (beautifully played by Scottish Kelly Macdonald), whom he clearly loves, and those around her, including her mother.

The movie is all about physical details, and quite impressively, the Coens don’t ‘cheat’ in what they show or don’t show, or trick the viewers in any manipulative way, as the helmers have done in former films. Through bravura crosscutting and parallel montages, we get to see the ‘resourceful’ ways in which Moss and Chigurh go about their business: how Chigurh kills in cold-blood after ‘chatting’ with his victims, how he takes care of his endless wounds, how Moss hides the cash in one motel after another, how they almost meet or miss each other.

What adds considerable color – and humor – to the proceedings – is the gallery of men and women the hunter and hunted meet along the way, from gas station attendants to store owners to motel managers to innocent teenagers and children, all of whom become crucial players in the labyrinth-like plot that continues to surprise up to the very end. Two or three sequences in which youngsters are involved across the border, with Chigurh and Moss negotiating (separately) for a shirt or another item are mesmerizing to watch, not least due to the cultural differences they accentuate.

The dialogue, most of which is sharp and crispy, conveys in brief strokes what we need to know about the characters, and then comes the last reel, in which Tommy Lee Jones (who was born to play the sheriff’s role) delivers a metaphysical speech about good and evil and basic mores of the American Way of Life. The very ending is quite poignant, but might upset some viewers since it’s abrupt and, once again, defies genre expectations.

Like Peter Bogdanovich’s elegiac (but not nostalgic) The Last Picture Show, based on Larry McMurtry’s seminal novel about life in Texas at the end of the 1940s, No Country for Old Men is at heart a story about the fast-approaching end of an entire way of Western life. The movie deals with the last stand of honor and justice against what’s become a broken world; the ongoing human struggle against the sinister; the dark comedy and violence of post-modern times; and the interplay of temptation, survival, and sacrifice.

The movie is very dark and extremely violent — even by standards of the Coen brothers — but it’s a rather faithful adaptation of McCarthy’s novel, its distinctly American themes, its rapid-fire pace, and its inky black comic tone. The Coens’ are able with their distinctive skills to transform McCarthy’s rich, wry, resonant, and often humorous storytelling into a bravura movie, based on striking images, spare dialogue, darkly humorous tone, and splendid acting from all around.

It’s hard to imagine a better match for the dusky wit and stark humanity of McCarthy’s characters than the Coens. Watching No Country for Old Men inevitably brings to mind Billy Bob Thornton’s failed rendition of another McCarthy seminal novel All the Pretty Horses, several years ago. If memory serves, McCarthy has written about ten novels, and there is no reason why they should not provide fertile stories for other gifted filmmakers like the Coen brothers.