Money, Bullets, Blood
The Coens find inspiration in Cormac
BY JASON BLAIR
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN: Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen. Written by the Coen brothers, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. Cinematography, Roger Deakins. Music, Carter Burwell. Starring Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Kelly Macdonald and Woody Harrelson. Miramax Films, 2007. R. 122 minutes.
|Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Bell in No Country for Old Men|
The premise is thinner than west Texas topsoil. While hunting antelope near the Rio Grande, a young man steals a satchel of money from the scene of a drug bust gone bad. It’s a large satchel, but for Lewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin), this isn’t the decision that seals his fate. That happens when, in a fit of compassion, Moss returns to the scene with a supply of water to aid the only survivor, only to find reinforcements waiting for him. In that moment, Moss becomes a fugitive from every person, every agency he has ever known or will know — his wife, her mother, the county sheriff, the DEA and, indirectly, Pablo Escobar — and a long and bloody chase ensues. But while No Country for Old Men is a first-rate thriller and quite possibly a classic of the genre, it is also a word-for-word (and in some cases, a page-for-page) translation of the Cormac McCarthy novel. Given McCarthy’s penchant for kicking up philosophical dust, No Country for Old Men might also be viewed as a grim but observant metaphysical drama, one in which myriad futures are opening and closing every instant.
As Moss runs, opposing forces take their positions. On one side is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a psychopath with a Jackson Browne haircut. Chigurh is a monument of violence, but we’re meant to think of him as a judge — one of several in McCarthy’s fiction — who passes sentence on those who inconvenience him. Ruthless but principled, Chigurh dispenses justice with a coin toss; like life itself, the coin appears to be random, but to Chigurh there’s nothing random about either. Calling him a bounty hunter is like calling the Terminator a robot: Chigurh doesn’t lose, he doesn’t bargain and he doesn’t ever forgive. What he does is kill people with a cattle gun. That arouses the interest of Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) who, like Chigurh, also lives according to principle. Gentle, weary and easy to defeat, Bell is a man for whom evil exists mostly in the newspaper. In Chigurh’s path, Bell is a scarecrow in a hurricane. Yet Bell is the great success of both the novel and the film of No Country for Old Men, lending pathos and humor through his folksy musings about the diversification and intensification of evil.
Set in 1980, No Country is McCarthy’s slimmest novel. Not his shortest, a title which belongs to The Road, but his slimmest, forgoing his trademark forensic detail for the straightforward action of a pulp thriller. In many ways I felt burdened by my reading of it, not in the sense that I regretted having done so, but in the sense that I had to suppress the urge to isolate the differences between the book and the Coen brothers’ film. There aren’t many. The film is a faithful compression of the book and not, as so often happens, a loose adaptation. But the film suffers ever so slightly for this fidelity, mainly in the way the climax happens offscreen, a device that works much better in the novel. Further, during a long shootout between Moss and Chigurh in Del Rio, Sheriff Bell is offscreen for almost 20 minutes. Both men convalesce afterward, Moss in a hospital and Chigurh under his own care (naturally), but the film never quite recovers its momentum. When news of the Del Rio shootout reaches him, Bell reluctantly croaks to life, resolved to find Chigurh, this “ghost” as Bell calls him. Ever so imperceptibly, the film re-starts, but the pace — perfect until the shootout — seeps away.
To be fair, I’m marking the few degrees by which No Country falls short of a masterpiece. A philosophical thriller is a continual balancing act, and for much of the film, that balance is maintained to perfection. The sound of the film is revelatory: The rattle of a train during a strangulation scene. The wind across the plains. Or, at its most macabre, the compression-click of Chigurh’s cattle prod. The film, photographed by Coen steady Roger Deakins, opens to a slowly rising sun, over which Sheriff Bell narrates the fundamental ideas at work here — namely, that he fears he can no longer recognize evil, let alone defeat it — and it ends with a stirring dream recalled by Bell to his wife over breakfast. Possibly because Jones grew up in the area where No Country was filmed or because he identifies closely with Bell, he lays claim to the movie from the very first scene. It’s the most important role of his career. Like this film, it will be talked about for years and years to come.
No Country for Old Men is now playing at Cinemark and VRC Stadium 15.