Wednesday, November 7, 2007
No Country For Old Men
3 and a half stars
It’s impossible to talk about No Country For Old Men without first discussing Javier Bardem’s hair. It’s an overgrown pageboy, silly, and even a touch fey—and it’s the most unlikely hair you will ever find on a chilling sociopath. I use the word “chilling” quite literally here: Every time Bardem’s Anton Chigurh appeared on screen—moving slowly, dragging his most uncanny of weapons (a lethal cattle gun powered by an oxygen tank), surveying his prey with an unblinking, supercilious gaze—a little involuntary shudder went down my spine. If you think you’ve seen it all in film—think no villain is menacing or bad ass enough to scare you—I suggest you reserve judgment until you see Bardem’s horrific creation.
Of course, Chigurh is the Coen Brothers’ creation, too. Many critics are saying that No Country For Old Men represents a return to form for the prodigiously talented brothers. I agree, to an extent. Yes, it’s great—pretty damn close to perfect (alas, it meanders a bit toward the end)—but it doesn’t feel like any Coen Brothers film I’ve ever seen. It’s not a surrealist exercise in paranoia, like Barton Fink. It’s not a vivid, rococo gangster film like Miller’s Crossing. And it’s not a tongue-in-cheek ironyfest, like Raising Arizona or Fargo. No, this is a much more sober and serious work than anything I’ve seen from the “boys” before—although it is quite funny at times. The palate is dank and gray; the film moves slowly and meticulously, almost as if it were being directed by Chigurh, himself.
The story—based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy—is set in 1980. It follows Llewylen Moss (excellent Josh Brolin), a Vietnam vet living in Texas who, while hunting stumbles across several dead bodies, a trunkload of cocaine, and two million dollars. His mistake, you see, is not that he takes the money—although he does, with an almost workmanlike nonchalance (the character is a fatalist of sorts; he remains singularly unfazed by this extraordinary turn of events)—but going back to the scene of the crime to give the lone survivor a jug of water. (This is important for the audience’s loyalties: Before that, Brolin’s Moss seemed almost as cold as Chigurh.) He gets shot at, and suddenly several people are on his trail: Freelance killer Chigurh, a gang of Mexican guns for hire, a dandified bounty hunter (Woody Harrelson), and the film’s heart and soul—town sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones).
It should be said that, at this point, Jones has become something of an invaluable screen presence. With his creased face and squinty eyes and his air of mournful irony—he brings a much-needed humanity (and humor) to the proceedings. It is Bell who embodies the phrase of the title: He is too old for this shit—this end of decency; this kind of amoral lawlessness that has become the landscape of American crime. With the exception of Chigurh, who has his own perverse code of behavior, there is no honor among thieves in No Country For Old Men—just greedy suckers getting in the way of the most terrifying cinematic monster since Hannibal Lector. As for Jones’ Bell? At least he knows when to get the hell out.