On the exterior, the Coen Brothers’ new film No Country for Old Men
might suggest a pulpy world of money and greed and murder. Rather, those characteristics work toward its superior goal: defining how lost and alien we feel the world has become. For this, we’re taken to the simplest of places, Texas in 1980, where people are quaint, Western landscapes are sprawling, and the world seems undisturbed. And yet as we look closer, that serenity is an illusion, with everyone trying desperately to grasp onto it for dear life.
From Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, the story revolves around three characters. Anton Chigurh personifies chaos. He is a sociopath played by actor Javier Bardem. He is tall, has mopish hair, a pale face, and sometimes sports a sinister grin. We see that evil grin almost immediately when in the first scenes Chigurh is arrested after being pulled over—why is not important, thus we are not told. The arresting officer handcuffs him, sits him on a station bench, and makes the mistake of turning his back. We see Chigurh stand up, slowly approach the cop from behind, and then strangle him to death on the floor with his handcuff chain. The officer kicks, marking the floor with innumerable scuffs; Chigurh gives an intense, fierce-eyed smile until the officer stops fighting. I assume Chigurh could have avoided being brought to the station and just killed the officer on the highway, but we see in his eyes that he wanted
this, something more gruesome and evident of a sick mind than a random highway shooting.
Chigurh is after more than $2 million in cash, which Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a welder and Vietnam veteran, stumbles upon in the countryside while hunting. Moss finds a drug-deal gone sour—there’s a pickup truck full of dope, dead men everywhere, and no money. One of the men got away with the case of cash, later dying a ways off from the rest. Moss follows his trail, finds the case, then brings it home to his naïve wife Carla (Kelly McDonald), where he confesses what he found with a cold certainty. Moss knows men will be after the money, yet he has no idea what psychopathic storm draws near with Chigurh.
For Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), Chigurh is perhaps a symptom of something more than chaos. Bell has seen it all and finds the only way to cope with horror stories reported in the paper is to laugh.
He’s a Texan whose world began to fade when people stopped addressing each other as "Sir" and "Ma’am". Bell is on the verge of retirement and refuses to humor state officials or other such bureaucratic so-and-sos by looking at a crime scene a second time; he’s already surveyed it, so why should he have to see it again? Even when walking over the gristliest of murder scenes, he is unaffected; he knows there’s surely something worse to follow. Jones plays Bell with a lingering woe hidden in that cracked, pensive façade; it's Jones' second great performance of this kind this year (see In the Valley of Elah
for the other).
Other characters like Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) pop up. Wells, a former partner and now rival of Chigurh, is asked just how dangerous the killer is. Wells replies “Compared to what? The bubonic plague?” And then there’s Stephen Root’s character who hires Wells to track down the $2 million; high up in his executive office, he underestimates Chigurh’s madness, taking for granted that only an insane person would attack in such a public place.
There’s an ominous sense of dread throughout the picture as Chigurh hangs over the money, following a well-hidden but visible trail left by Moss. His methods are sadistic. I mentioned before the character’s psychopathic logic in going out of his way to strangle the police officer in the first scenes. Continuing with that idea, Chigurh carries with him a cattlegun, also known as a captive bolt pistol, which includes a tank of compressed air with a long rubber tube connected to a bolt device. Switching it on shoots out a small bolt, which is retracted after being released sharply. While traditionally used to slaughter livestock, Chigurh wields it to blast cylinder locks open and brain his victims (who may as well be cattle to him). In addition to that mechanism, he carries a shotgun with a massive silencer. Both means of exacting his derangement seem awkward handling, as if he inconveniences himself to satisfy his own murderous drives.
Chigurh’s name is pronounced differently (sometimes “suger” and sometimes “chig-her”), but I can not help but read it as “chigger”, as in the parasitic mite that fastens itself under your skin. With chiggers, there’s always more hidden away, dug in so deep they seem impossible to dislodge. Chigurh is imminent to be sure, but he alone isn’t what Bell anticipates. Perhaps the sheriff’s disillusionment protects him, in that he avoids buying into the ideology that the world is a sane place. How can it be sensible with people like Chigurh imbedded under the world’s skin? Moss, on the other hand, doesn’t see that Chigurh’s indicative evil is evidence of something more; because of that, he’s swallowed up whole.
Despite the film’s grim sentiments on the cruel nature of existence, it’s all brought to the screen with beautiful, bare clarity by cinematographer Roger Deakins. His work captures the melancholy breathing space of Texas, bleak fields and dusty towns, which oddly feel confining, knowing Chigurh is out there. Deakins’ genius has met with the Coens before, numerous times, on their best-looking films O Brother, Where Art Thou?
and The Man Who Wasn’t There
. In fact, he’s filmed all their work since Barton Fink
in 1991. And while he (sadly) won’t be continuing on the Coens’ next film Burn After Reading
, his clear talent is also readily enjoyable in this year’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Joel and Ethan Coen made a string of near-perfect films, beginning in 1984 with their impressive debut Blood Simple
and ending with The Man Who Wasn’t There
. All films between those two points contain their expert handling of mise en scène
, proficiency for quick-witted, even Hawksian dialogue, and imaginative auteur approach. With their last two disappointments Intolerable Cruelty
and The Ladykillers
, fans of the writer-directors were left believing they had fallen down the same blatantly commercial pathway as so many other modern filmmakers.
Given my high regard of their work, it is no meager statement when I now declare No Country for Old Men
their best film. These are filmmakers at the height of a reclaiming, once again placing themselves at the crux of modern cinema. This is a punishing, scary film, filled with dark and shocking imagery, stirring performances, all shyly touched with the Coens’ wry humor. Akin to Sheriff Bell, sometimes we cannot help but laugh at the horrors shown to us. There’s simply no other way for them to appear sensible.