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No Country for Old Men

February 7, 2008

One of my all-time favourite movies is the Coen Brothers’ wildly inventive crime fable, Fargo. Talking about it with friends a week or so ago I was delighted to see how easily we could all recall those darkly amusing scenes that set that particular film apart from anything else; Frances McDormand’s heavily pregnant cop, Peter Stormare pushing the last of Steve Buscemi (a white-socked foot) into a wood-chipper, Mike Yanagita humiliating himself, Jerry’s incompetent and tragically flawed scam, the dime store philosophical homilies (“There’s more to life than a little money, you know, don’t you know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it”). And it got me to thinking that I like most of the boys’ output since then, but I don’t love it, you know? The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Though? have big fan bases, I know that, but personally I don’t think they reach the level of sheer satisfaction that Fargo manages, and as for The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty, well, we’re all allowed off days. But two in a row?

That’s not to say that I approached No Country for Old Men with trepidation. Far from it, with a buzz that the lads were ‘back on form’ (a tall order) and ploughing the older Blood Simple/Fargo themes of crime and its grim repercussions, it would be more accurate to say I couldn’t bloody wait. And damn me if it isn’t just the best thing they’ve ever done.

The story is a familiar and simple one; a hunter, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), stumbles across a drug deal gone wrong, with two gangs shot to pieces out in the west Texas hinterland. With no witnesses to speak of he makes off with the deal money ($2million). What he doesn’t bank on is the man sent out to retrieve the cash. No-one would bank on him, no-one would be able to predict what he brings to the party.

The story unfolds from this basic premise and flowers into one of the finest meditations on fear and reprisal that cinema has ever managed. As with all of the Coens’ best movies, you’re quickly under the skin of all the major protagonists (with one enormous exception). Brolin is quite, quite stunning, spare in his use of dialogue, but heavy of beetled brow and worried countenance as he carries the weight of many solo scenes with a gritty aplomb; Tommy Lee Jones brings a new definition to the word laconic as he teeters along the line that nearly threatens to fall into parody as hangdog sheriff Ed Tom Bell; Kelly MacDonald was never further from Glasgow as Llewelyn’s anxious wife Carla Jean; and Woody Harrelson pops up as a hunter for hire, a self-styled ‘Nam vet, Carson Wells. All act their socks off by barely acting at all, just by getting on with the story and allowing the dialogue to burrow effortlessly into your subconcious. However, all – even Jones – are upstaged by Javier Bardem, who plays the seemingly unstoppable killer, Anton Chigurh. Chigurh has a hinted-at history with Carson Wells, but beyond that he is the epitome of the rootless, existential killer, a whirlwind acting within his own set of rules. His relentless pursuit, not just of Moss, not just of the money, but as a late stop-off proves, his own principles, is utterly terrifying. His pitch-black, soulless bullying of a cheery old-timer is one of the most disturbing things I’ve seen in a mainstream movie, and his weapon of choice (an abattoir gun) will chill you every time. You don’t get under his skin, he gets under yours.

Inevitably, this becomes a very violent movie, and the action sequences are handled with the studied blend of steely willpower and observation that the Coens have been exhibiting for years. The simple bravura of Raising Arizona‘s huggies chase is recreated in a shadowy and gruesome homage as Chigurh tracks Llewelyn down to a hotel and pursues him through the streets of El Paso and over the Rio Grande into Juárez. There’s so much detail to take on board here, but so wonderfully assured is Joel as a director that even in the murky black of the TexMex night you get it all.

What also becomes patently clear is that this is not Blood Simple, nor even Fargo. Similarly themed it may be – and incidentally has anyone shot cars leaving lonely highways and into lonelier fields with more style than the Coens? – but no, this is not at all like those previous outings. No Country is more brutal than Blood (although sink aficionados will be delighted to know that final screen shot is, briefly, referenced here at the start), and eschews the sing-song good humour of its snowier more recent cousin. Where Marge Gunderson made us all smile with her home-spun wisdom, here it’d be well out of place. Jones’s sheriff tries it, but after a while you realise that by pointing out the similarities of plot and bleak landscape, the differences are all the more jarring. When Jones drawls his introduction, it’s only later that you really hear what he said:

The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job – not to be glorious. But I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. You can say it’s my job to fight it, but I don’t know what it is anymore. More than that, I don’t want to know. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He would have to say, “OK, I’ll be part of this world.”

Gradually, Bell becomes more and more wary of the pursuit and in one scene is even able to acknowledge his fear as he hesitates to enter a room. His Uncle, a retired lawman, tells him ’twas ever thus;

Whatcha got ain’t nothin’ new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.

But Jones has let it in, the fear, and he knows that this is no longer a country for old men (he says of his father, another sheriff, “I’m older now then he ever was by twenty years, so in a sense he’s the younger man”). The world’s moved on, Bell knows that, the Coens know that, and anyone who crosses Chigurh knows that. Marge, the Coens are saying, wouldn’t last five minutes. In the last scenes, Jones’s character simply looks lost and bewildered.

This is a tough and at times genuinely horrible ride through a tough and difficult world, and you’re spared very few of the details, and the final message isn’t particularly cheery, but it’s a fantastic ride nevertheless, and even if they had to strangle an old favourite to do it, the Coens have come up with a more accomplished piece work. It is, in simple terms, brilliant. My first trip to the cinema in 2008 can’t have produced the best film of the year, can it?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 7, 2008 4:18 pm

    Best film by the Coen Brothers – I would say quite possibly, and best film of the year … well something truly magnificent needs to come along to beat this.

    You don’t mention if you have read the original novel or not. This film is very, very close to Cormac McCarthy’s book, and I’m not sure if the Coens have tacked a literary adaptation before.

  2. amner permalink
    February 7, 2008 5:00 pm

    Hi Stephen, and thanks for stopping by.

    I haven’t read the novel, although I did read The Road last year…which I loved. It’ll be interesting to see how the new adaptations of McCarthy (The Road, and also Ridley Scott’s Blood Meridian) compare to this.

    They’ll have to be going some.

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