Below are my two reviews of Joel and Ethan Coen's 2007 Oscar-winner No Country for Old Men--recently added to the Criterion Channel--written for DVDTalk about four months apart.
THEATRICAL RELEASE, 11/8/2007
There is a dread that lingers long after No Country for Old Men has gone through its closing credits. Long after Tommy Lee Jones speaks his final lines, long after you've realized that this movie is not about what you thought it was, but about something else entirely. That dread is what another character, the El Paso sheriff that shares a meal and some wisdom with Jones, calls "the tide." It's not one thing that changes the world for the bad, he says, but the whole tide of things that will overwhelm you.
No Country for Old Men is adapted from the 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy. It has been brought to the screen by the Coen Brothers, and despite the fact that they worked with their long-time cinematographer Roger Deakins, it doesn't really look like a Coen Bros. movie. It doesn't feel like one either, it doesn't move like one. In fact, had you played me this movie cold and told me nothing about who was involved, I wouldn't have guessed in a million years. I'm a big fan, too. I even liked The Ladykillers, which most people rip on pretty freely. It's been three years since that movie was released, and No Country for Old Men suggests that the famous filmmaking duo thought long and hard about how they would return to the Cineplex after that failure. For two guys whose early reputation grew fat on stylistic innovation, this quiet reinvention of what they are about is no less than astounding. Gone are the visual tricks and the hyperactive cameras, and in their place is something mannered, complex, and foreboding.
The plot of No Country for Old Men revolves around a satchel of money. While out in the Texas desert hunting, straight-laced welder Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) happens upon the remnants of a drug deal gone bad. He finds the $2 million in cash that was intended to be the buy money and makes a rash decision to take it home, leaving the lone survivor of the bloodbath to die on his own. Feeling guilty, he returns to the scene in the middle of the night, only to be spotted by bad guys who want their money back. Barely escaping alive, Llewellyn sends his wife (Kelly Macdonald) off to her mother's and goes on the run.
Too bad for him his pursuer is a one-stop death machine. Anton Chigurh, played with a seething menace by Javier Bardem, started his killing spree before he even got to the mess in the desert, so Llewellyn is just going to be another notch in his belt. The simple act of filling up his stolen car with gas is like an existential exercise in flexing his muscles. There is nothing Anton does that won't end in someone bleeding out on the floor.
Add to the mix Tommy Lee Jones as the local sheriff and you have the three main ingredients in this Texmex recipe. Though no one would blame you for thinking Jones is once again playing the same role he's been playing for the last ten years, it's been a long time since he's been this good. His take on Sheriff Bell could have been just another run-through of the actor's good humored cynicism and cornfed homilies, but Jones rightly sensed that he was the true emotional center of No Country for Old Men, the spiritual avatar of its deeper themes; as a result, he sheds the skin of easy comfort that he's worn through most of his recent films and lets his soul back out. Just as the Coen Bros. appear to be blazing new trails for themselves, dropping their old tricks for serious storytelling, so Jones seems to have wearied of his homespun image and has decided to put that weariness on film.
Essentially, No Country for Old Men is a four-pronged chase picture. Bardem is on the trail of Brolin, the money men and dealers team up to chase them both, and Jones is chasing all three. When they do catch up with one another at different times in the picture, the results are unexpected and harrowing. Yet, each twist of the plot strides in on a very comfortable gait. The Coens don't rush it when it doesn't need to be rushed, and they never inject a scene with an inflated sense of peril. There is time enough to get where they are all going.
Or so it would seem. The ironic thing about the pacing of No Country for Old Men is that ultimately, despite the lack of panic, time is running out. It's a eulogy for a particular way of life, a lament for dying values. Anton Chigurh, with a name that sounds like the sweetest confection, is a force of nature that has come seemingly out of nowhere, and he represents the future less than he represents the divide. He twice lets his victims gamble on their life, the call of a flipped coin determining if they win or die. The old sheriff is heads, a thinker who follows a code and predetermined ideas, whereas Llewellyn Moss is tails, running on instinct, making choices that his counterpart would never make.
Even with all the dead bodies that litter the road these men travel, the most devastating part of No Country for Old Men has nothing to do with blood, guns, or any of that stuff. Those are not the things that linger. Hell, most of the more surprising bends in that road (and there are several near the end) eschew those elements altogether. The true brutality is the passage of time, in our awareness of it, and in the inevitability of the countdown. Like Chigurh, it can't be stopped. Not by pure stubborn action, not even by the capriciousness of chance. Perhaps it's better to be like Llewellyn and try to remain ignorant of what lies ahead, because when it's all down to the wire, there is no comfort in acceptance.
DVD RELEASE, 3/11/2008
My take on this year's Academy Awards was that it was a tough year to get it wrong. Except for a few glaring exceptions (*cough* Atonement *cough*), the major categories were packed full with amazing talent. This embarrassment of riches meant no film scored a clean sweep, though the Coen Bros. masterful rumination on time and tide, No Country for Old Men, came close.
It's an interesting film to ponder, because it seems to me that its fan club is populated with just as many people who misunderstand the film in the same way its detractors misunderstand it. I realize that interpretation of any art form is subjective, and I definitely subscribe to the theory that any explication is valid as long as it can be backed up, so I am not saying that these people are wrong. Even so, let me tell you why they are.
Adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men is less a tough-guy genre story and more of a lament for the same. McCarthy and the Coens have come to bury Clint Eastwood, not to praise him (much less save him). (And, for the record, the absent scenes are also absent in the book.) It's not about the crimes or the getaways, it's about what these events represent.
As a good indicator of where some of the well-meaning attention No Country has garnered has taken a wrong turn is the overwhelming amount of ink devoted to Javier Bardem's performance as Anton Chigurh. Don't get me wrong, every ounce of praise heaped in Bardem's direction is deserved. His portrayal of the amoral Chigurh is one of the most carefully wrought and fiercely scary portrayals of a bad guy ever put on celluloid. Yet, there is a reason Bardem won for Best Supporting Actor and not as the lead. To consider Chigurh the lead is like giving the Death Star top billing in Star Wars. Chigurh is a force of the times, a catalyst for change, the unerring and unbending agent of fate who forces the hands of the men who run from him and the ones who pursue him. We've all seen that coin toss scene a million times now, and it's an important moment in the movie. Win or lose, you have to play, and if you don't know that, get out of the way, you're already done.
Though No Country for Old Men is an ensemble piece, if I had to pick a lead, I'd say it's the Tommy Lee Jones character, Sheriff Bell. He's the old man that the country has abandoned. He represents past values, the guy who got things done a certain way and had certain unassailable beliefs that he never thought would be rocked. Chigurh is the powerhouse that is pounding at the Sheriff's foundations, while Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is the modern man caught in between. He doesn't have the history of Bell to rely on, nor has he fully sussed out what the new system of values will be in Chigurh's future. He's running from Chigurh's deathly vengeance while Bell is trying to embrace him, to keep him safe. Neither position is Moss' place, and thus he must keep moving. The alternative is stagnation and death.
The beauty of McCarthy's metaphor is that it comes dressed in familiar armor, and thus the film adaptation shows up in the trappings of genre. One can easily enjoy the movie in that sense, but if you aren't watching for the way the Coens are dismantling genre, removing each piece of armor one by one, then you are likely going to find some disappointment when your expectations are subverted.
Funnily enough, all of the characters in the movie are going to learn essentially the same thing about expectations. Their belief in the order of the universe holds little weight, as the universe is wont to spin at its own accord. Even Chigurh, who attempts to destroy order by imposing his own concoction of chaos, is forced to learn what real randomness is. Moss' wife (Kelly MacDonald) is the only one willing to call him on it. His coin, as she explains, has no say in his actions, it's really just him, he will act as he will. His last scene in the movie is when one of the few truly random acts occurs, the one thing he doesn't make happen.
So, what then does a man do when the universe fails him? Keep soldiering on, it seems. Sheriff Bell finds no satisfaction in surrender, and the dreams he shares with his wife, of the inconsequential material world being lost and the hope for some light in the darkness, are suggestive of the only absolutes he can be sure about.