Llewellyn Moss is in the sort of trouble you can’t even imagine. Out hunting one morning he comes across several shot-up pickups, a half-dozen stiffs and a case full of cash. Bales of heroin in one pickup leave no doubt that the cash is off-limits, just waiting to be reclaimed. Taking it seems so easy, but even as his fingers close around the handle Moss knows he’s creating a future swimming not in cash, but blood.
Since 2003 I’ve been waiting for the Coen Brothers to roar back to life. They stumbled with the self-parody of Intolerable Cruelty and experienced a one picture free-fall with The Ladykillers. In the DVD age four years seems like a purgatorial eternity. Wait out purgatory, however, and you might get to paradise. It should surprise no one that, when it comes to the Joel and Ethan Coen, paradise looks a lot like Texas. For Moss, meanwhile, Texas is turning into hell.
No Country For Old Men, the brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, is more sharp, clean and beautiful than the blade of any knife. It eschews idiosyncratic Coen humor, instead going directly for the throat. To watch this movie is to see pure talent and inspiration on the screen, undiluted by sentiment or leavened by mercy. Only in the last gasps of the final act is there anything like relief, and even that is offered warily.
McCarthy’s novel is daylight noir, a sand-baked Grand Guignol in the vein of Jim Thompson, made apocalyptic by spare, unforgiving language. On film, the effect is much the same, as Joel and Ethan have created the most crystalline film of their career. Dialogue is clipped but natural, and the great number of violent incidents are delivered with only a thin veneer of style. More brutal than Blood Simple or Miller’s Crossing, this movie puts your head right in the lion’s mouth.
Moss makes an enormous mistake after taking the cash, revealing his identity to the original owners. Drawn into the mess is Llewellyn’s wife (Kelly McDonald), hired killer Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) and local Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, embodied with leathered wisdom by Tommy Lee Jones. Hot on the trail of Moss and the money comes Anton Chigurh, less a man than a muscle car with a Mod-cut mop of hair.
Armed with a livestock stun gun, Chigurh rolls all previous Coen antagonists into one unstoppable figure. He’s so bloodthirsty and terrible that in the wrong hands he’d become caricature or parody. But Javier Bardem keeps him right on track with touches of chilling humanity. A strange smile, or the way he cranes his neck back away from an arterial gush while strangling a deputy. The latter comes straight from McCarthy, but that doesn’t mean the details would necessarily make it to the screen. Applaud the Coens and Bardem for pulling it off.
Josh Brolin, unexpectedly, is Bardem’s equal. Brolin has become a man to watch in the past year, but as Moss he’s about to cement himself as one of the new leading men. His range is not massive, but here every ounce of his potential goes to work. His unadorned take on Llewellyn Moss carries all the nuance the character requires. He mines spare touches of humor from McCarthy’s cold pages and drives action scenes with muscular physicality.
When I saw No Country I hadn’t read the novel. Blazing through it now, I’m even more impressed with the film. In addition to being a nearly impeccable piece of cinema, it’s also one of the finest literal adaptations I’ve ever seen. In general, I’ll take my literary translations fast and loose (think Adaptation or Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch) but for anyone who wants to make a direct page to screen translation in the future, this is the new gold standard.
The novel is as stripped down as they come, prose which naturally lends itself to direct adaptation. You’d think that makes the task easy, and in doing so you’d discount the brass balls required of any filmmaker who tackles the book. McCarthy is fearless, allowing major events to take place between chapters, and the Coen Brothers let those same actions lie between scenes in their film.
I can’t be more direct without giving really important things away, but trust me. You see things in this movie that just aren’t done. Or don’t see them, as the case may be.
In fact, the film’s final act will be a source of puzzlement, perhaps even irritation, to the average audience. Not you, no. You’re smarter than that. You’ll know what Tommy Lee Jones is talking about when the picture fades, and understand why so much of the action that would typically provide fodder for slow-motion montage takes place away from the lens of any camera.
Which is not to say that we’re spared the sight of Chigurh at work. Never ones to shy away from violence, the Coens don’t flinch as he relentlessly chips away at anyone blocking his target. They paint their stony worldview, one in which prudence is the only heroism, with brutality that is distressing but impossible to deny. No Country For Old Men is a legend for the end of days, and it’s beautiful.