IT AT AMAZON:
- Working with The Coens
- The Making of No Country for Old
- Diary of a Country Sheriff
Always best to leave drug money where you find it, unless you’re keen to touch off a narrative depicting the end of order in the universe (or, at the very least, America).
Joel and Ethan Coen adapt Cormac McCarthy’s novel about a modern-day cowboy’s ill-advised attempt to abscond with $2 million left over from a drug deal gone bloody and bad. Hot on his trail are the ghostly hit man Anton Chigurh and, always a step or two behind, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. All does not end well.
The big news with No Country for Old Men is not that the Coen brothers finally adapted a work of literature, but that they finally owned up to it. Aside from the half-joking credit thrown Homer’s way for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, they’ve generally left it to the viewer to identify their influences: Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key and Red Harvest for Miller’s Crossing, an amalgam of James M. Cain for The Man Who Wasn’t There, and a smoked-out variation on Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep for The Big Lebowski. Sometimes these names will come up in interviews, but, generally, the Coens prefer to stay tight-lipped on their distillation process, and this mystery (which Billy Bob Thornton once called termed their “secret shit”) has made them all the more elusive and worshipped.
The key difference with No Country for Old Men is that, for once, audiences could peek behind the curtain and see the various knobs and switches the Coens would be manipulating; and though all is not explicated in McCarthy’s novel, the areas of ambiguity could at least be anticipated. But there’s still no getting ahead of the Coens. From Tommy Lee Jones’s opening monologue as the weary, quietly fearful Ed Tom Bell (marked by the complete lack of a new Carter Burwell theme, a stunning absence that persists until the closing credits), the Coens don’t so much draw you in as drag you under; Jones’s Texas drawl has never sounded more barren, and his hopelessness is hauntingly underscored by those shots of clouds hanging over the parched southwestern landscape like evil spirits stalking anyone fool enough to stray beneath the oppressive sun.
Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is one such fool, but before the Coens turn their gaze in his damned direction, they introduce the viewer to the reaper in flesh form (and a now-iconic pageboy haircut), Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Chigurh is a curiously vulnerable angel of death; he is apprehended, evaded, surprised, shot and, in the end, left to the mercy of children after a jarring car wreck (the film’s one capitulation to cinematic cliche). But he does abide. Those who lay eyes on him, however, generally do not. And there is no playing chess with Chigurh (not even Twister or Battleship!); he’ll give you the courtesy of a coin flip, but even a correct call is no guarantee that you’re escaping the encounter with your life.
Once Chigurh is loosed on the world (after an orgasmic strangulation and a compressed-air braining), it is on to Moss’s predicament, which is self-inflicted. There isn’t much known about Moss at the outset, and, as he scrambles to stay out of scythe’s reach of Chigurh, what the viewer learns about him isn’t enough to evoke a tremendous amount of sympathy. As in any crime film, there is a desire to see the protagonist get away clean, but Moss has it coming; once he flees the aftermath of the shootout with that leather case stuffed full of $100 bills, he’s as much a villain as Chigurh.
Pauline Kael once noted that the noir-conscious Coens preferred to take a god’s-eye-view of their venal characters so as to more freely indulge their own cruel streak. But when they entertained the presence of morality in Fargo (via Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson), the brothers exposed their humanity. For all their posturing and overt stylization, they really, truly care about the state of this world; and while they can still find great humor in human weakness (see The Man Who Wasn’t There), the wickedness in their films could no longer occur in a vacuum. All this smirking mayhem comes at a steep cost.
Perhaps this is what throws viewers about the final third of the film; they want Sheriff Bell to confront and slay the Big Inexplicable Evil just as Marge did at the conclusion of Fargo. They need the mechanics of the procedural to payoff in some kind of semi-conventional final showdown – and a bedroom-set coin-flipping contest between Chigurh and Carla Jean Moss (Kelly Macdonald) doesn’t count. But this isn’t Chandler, and Bell is no Marlowe. That Chigurh is even walking amongst the living means the game, such as it was, is over. And humanity lost big time. Bell understands this from the beginning, but he doesn’t accept it until the end, and that’s why Jones’s final monologue is such a kidney punch; there are small ways of preserving order (i.e. arresting the wrongdoers, observing an honorable code of conduct), but there is no restoring it. Chaos, and Chigurh, shall reign until it all comes crashing down, and god knows what that’s gonna look like. Well, there is McCarthy’s The Road…
No Country for Old Men may be the most viciously spare work in the Coens’ oeuvre, but it’s still an enormously entertaining film. After spinning out with Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, one can’t understate the joy of getting to see the Coens not only return to form, but deliver their first indisputable masterpiece since Barton Fink (I wish I could love The Big Lebowski as others so fervently do). The mid-film shootout between Moss and Chigurh is as tautly staged as the “O, Danny Boy” ambush from Miller’s Crossing, while their subtle enhancing of McCarthy’s dialogue bends the tone just enough in their favor without trashing the author’s intent. When one can only identify a solitary flaw – again, the trite, out-of-nowhere car crash – after several viewings, it’s time to submit. If this is what the Coens do when tied down to someone else’s text, then they seriously need to limit themselves more often.
The film looks and sounds terrific, so why bitch if the Coens have, once again, resisted an in-depth documenting of their process? The three featurettes included on this single-disc release – “The Making of No Country for Old Men“, “Working with the Coens” and “Diary of a Country Sheriff” – are EPK quality and eminently skippable. If the Coens were unwilling to sit down for a commentary, a Brolin/Bardem track would’ve been acceptable, but its absence is hardly a crime.