It has been well over a year since I read the news that the Coen brothers would be filming Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. While that year went by fast enough, it was an excruciating wait. Fortunately, the wait paid off this weekend as the film opened to limited release in the U.S. In the film, the Coen brothers have grasped the essence of all Cormac McCarthy’s writing. Faithfulness to the story be damned: the Coen brothers have captured the spirit of McCarthy’s novel and fashioned it into two and a half hours of breathtaking filmmaking. I doubt anyone involved with the film could have made it any better. Here are three great clips (although not the best) from the film. Read on for the rest of the review.
No Country for Old Men is the story of a busted drug deal in Texas in 1980 gone oh so wrong. Through the story, McCarthy and the Coen brothers explore the nature of evil in the world, the (in)ability of good to confront it, and the ordinary people who get caught in between. The film opens as a deputy arrests Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem as one of the most heinous villains in recent cinema), a detached psychopath that kills with an air gun used to tag cattle. Paralleling Chigurh’s arrest and his reason for arrival on the scene is the busted drug deal that Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles across while hunting antelope. Moss finds bodies galore and $2 million dollars that, with no one looking, he takes. Chigurh pursues Moss, methodically leaving a trail of death and destruction about which Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones in yet another brilliant performance) must make some kind of sense.
The film is full of perfect performances and stunning cinematography; hoewever, it is its meditation on good and evil that makes it such a success. McCarthy and the Coen brothers do not take any shortcuts here. The filmmakers do not flinch from the soulless violence that Chigurh metes out. Yet they do not question Sheriff Bell or Moss’ convictions either, the characters do this enough to each other. Some viewers might reference the immorality of Chigurh, the simplicity of Sheriff Bell, or the naivete of Moss; however, these ideals really have nothing to do with it.
Chigurh is not so much immoral as he is amoral. When Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), a bounty hunter, tells him he is crazy or that he does not have to do what he does, Chigurh looks at him as if he is from a different planet. Clearly, Chigurh rightly exists in some ancient biblical era as an angel of death with no regard for right or wrong, only duty. He justifies some of his murders through a coin toss in which the victim has to “call it.” He couches this coin toss in a philosophical treatise on fate, choice, and life well lived, ultimately blaming the results on the coin. When Moss’ wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) virtually disarms his argument that the coin has anything to do with it, he cannot respond, and we are left wondering what he does with her, although the Coen brothers give us a fairly good hint.
Sheriff Bell’s conversations with his wife and deputy and his narration reveal a man overwhelmed by the evil of his day. He argues that “it’s hard to take its measure.” This might as well be the most succinct response to a film that demands repeated viewings. Faced with the ruthlessness of Chigurh, we might all abandon hope at the theater doors, yet it is in Sheriff Bell’s concluding speech that we find a glimmer of hope. Bell tells his wife of a dream in which his father (a former sheriff like his own father) rides past on a horse with a cone of fire. Bell says he knows little else about what his father is doing or where he is going other than the fact that, when he leaves this world, his father will be waiting there for him, thus signifying some hope beyond this present darkness.
Yet in the meantime, there might just be no response to the Chigurh’s threats . Moss tries to respond and loses everything in the process. The evil that he faces is too much for one man and, perhaps, all of humanity. Of course, there might be one recourse with which the Coen brothers are most adept at dealing. When Sheriff Bell reads a horrific news story to his deputy about a couple that tortures and murders elderly people and cashes their social security checks, the deputy snickers and then quickly apologizes. Sheriff Bell responds, “That’s ok…sometimes that’s all you can do.” Amazingly, the Coen brothers have put humor in places we would least expect it in No Country for Old Men, lightening the tension that would otherwise smother us.
The Coen brothers’ ability to weave comedy and drama of the utmost seriousness, along with spot-on casting and flawless performances have all resulted in one of their best films to date and certainly a front-runner for the best film of the year.
No Country for Old Men (122 mins) is rated R for violent images and some language and is scheduled for general release by November 21st.