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No Country for Old Men by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen (Review)

The bleakest film the Coen Brothers have made to date.
No Country for Old Men, Coen Brothers

I suppose that, had I seen No Country for Old Men on any other day, its unrelenting bleakness would have seemed unnecessarily maudlin, or even worse, comically absurd. But just a few hours before my wife and I walked into the theatre, we read news stories about two shootings in Colorado that ultimately left four people dead. And just a few days earlier, a troubled young man walked into a posh shopping center in my old hometown of Omaha and killed eight people before turning the gun on himself.

Suddenly, No Country for Old Men’s vision of humanity caught in the clutches of an unstoppable and incomprehensible evil that leaves its few survivors — if you can call them that — reeling and shocked seemed less absurd and all too real. The world depicted on the silver screen looked a little too much like the world I’d left outside the theatre walls.

The latest film from the Coen Brothers — adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed novel — bears many similarities to their previous films. There’s that ear for quirky dialog, the obvious love for characters’ idiosyncrasies, and the brief flashes of absurdist humor. But those are merely on the surface. Arguably, they’ve never done anything this unremittingly bleak. Not even Fargo with its wood chipper wanders this far into the wasteland.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is out hunting when he stumbles across the remains of a drug deal gone bad: a pile of bodies, bullet-riddled trucks, a heap of heroin, and a case full of money. Seeing the opportunity, Moss grabs the money and runs, hoping to take his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) and escape whatever might come for them.

Which happens to be Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), one of the most unforgettable villains to “grace” the big screen in quite some time. Relentless, brutal, and utterly amoral, Chigurh leaves a wake of devastation in his path, using little more than a compressed air gun to kill his quarry — and whoever happens to be in his way at the time.

The only thing that might stand between Moss and Chigurh is Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a world-weary sheriff coming up on retirement. Bell comes from a long line of lawmen, and is proud of wearing a badge. But the world, best exemplified in the form of Chigurh, seems to have grown too brutal for even a staunch and experienced officer like Bell.

And thus begins the chase, with the Coens doing everything to ratchet up the tension along the way, even throwing in a few twists along the way.

One of the film’s most interesting aspects in this regard is its near total lack of a soundtrack. Aside from a few atmospheric drones here and there, the only music that plays is during the end credits. But for a film like No Country for Old Men, the incorporation of a soundtrack would be something of a cheat, the audio cues clueing you in on what to expect right around the corner. By stripping that out, though, the Coens leave the viewer as helpless and confused as Chigurh’s quarry. We never know when someone is going to strike, when someone is going to die until it’s too late.

All we can do, it seems, is sit down and, like Bell, shake our heads at the madness of it all.

Many folks have sung the praises of Bardem’s performance as Chigurh, and it’s easy to see why. Chigurh is less a character in the movie than a force of nature: calm and collected one moment, even methodical, and then blindingly ruthless the next, with nary a clue as to when the change will occur.

One of the first scenes from No Country for Old Men that made its way onto the Web takes place when Chigurh, fresh from a murder or two, arrives at a gas station and the hapless attendant asks one too many questions. Chigurh flips a coin, telling the man to call heads or tails, all while deconstructing the man’s mundane existence. Chigurh appears to have some code of honor, albeit a twisted one, as he obeys the whims of chance, the results of a coin toss. But that serves only to reinforce his chaotic and amoral nature.

Bardem’s performance throughout all of this is chilling, adding a slight hint of charm and bemusement to the malice.

However, I always find myself gravitating back to Bell, who is the moral core of the film (one that is often overshadowed, both by the story and Chigurh’s madness). Jones is superb, and his worn and lined face speaks volumes. As with so many great performances, it’s all about the eyes. Bell is taciturn even when confronted with Chigurh’s considerable carnage, speaking only in a matter-of-fact drawl, but his eyes constantly shift to and fro, as if attempting to read some sort of sense in a world gone increasingly mad — or on the verge of weeping.

And I want to weep with him. No Country for Old Men is a dark film, make no mistake about that. But it is also a film riddled with Truth. Truth about the fallen, violent condition of man and the cold, calculated incomprehensibility of evil. And though the film is played to sometimes mythic extremes — though that may have more to do with awe-inspiring Texas vistas than anything else — it is still frighteningly real.

Near the end of the film, Bell visits an uncle who was a former lawman himself. The two ruminate on the “good ol’ days” when the world made sense — and then the uncle remarks that this is how it’s always been. There never really were any good ol’ days. And then he remarks how this country is hard on people. A simple statement, and yet one that rings with truth.

We all live in a country that’s no place for old men, or anyone else for that matter. And yet, within that dark truth, there is hope. For all of its bleakness, I don’t find No Country for Old Men nearly as nihilistic as some have. For all of his befuddlement and confusion, Bell presents an amazing portrait of a man willing to place his own life in danger so as to do right — to willingly be “part of this world,” as he puts it in the film’s opening monologue.

And so, ultimately, I find that No Country for Old Men presents two great truths, though one is surely the greater focus. We live in a fallen and brutal world, surrounded by great cold and blackness. And yet, the other truth is that we are still to choose to be part of this world, to step into that blackness and be willing to lose it all.

Admittedly, there are times in the film where the Coens seem to a little more preoccupied with the former truth than the latter. When it seems like they’re reveling a little too much in Chigurh and his exploits, and what they represent. But it’s all there, sometimes communicated as clearly as a blast from a shotgun in the middle of the night, or as softly as a distant rainstorm rumbling across the desert.

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