NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (dirs. & scrs. Joel & Ethan Coen)
The Coen Bros. have suffered a drop in credibility over the past few years, helming projects that seemed more like paycheques than logical entries in their ouevre, such as the somewhat unfairly-maligned screwball comedy Intolerable Cruelty and the totally fairly-maligned Ladykillers remake (blech!). So the near-universal hosannas bestowed upon No Country for Old Men, their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's nihilist Western, have inevitably featured variations on the phrase 'return to form'.
Now, I've seen every film by the Coens (if you don't count their script for Sam Raimi's Crimewave) and I can safely say that their 'form' has never looked like this. What immediately distinguishes No Country from the rest of their work is its refusal to temper the bleak cynicism of McCarthy's prose with excessive affectation or comic asides; this is the first film by the Bros. in which nothing is surrounded by quotation marks. For better or for worse, even their prior 'dramas' - The Man Who Wasn't There, Fargo, Miller's Crossing, Blood Simple - were leavened with distancing touches like goofy Minnesotan accents, Frankie Yankovic posters, overcooked Tracer Bullet dialogue and John Getz acting like an unbelievable dolt. There is precious little of that to be found in No Country; the local yokels are, for the most part, underplayed, and even a brief supporting turn by Stephen Root manages dramatic credibility. In essence, the Coens' most recognizable fingerprint (condescension or stylization, depending on your temperament) is absent here. And it seems to have defibrillated their black little hearts.
Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin), an unprincipled but generally decent rancher, stumbles across the bloody remnants of a bad drug deal while hunting, and unwisely relieves one corpse of a briefcase containing a million bajillion dollars (as much a MacGuffin here as it was in Fargo and The Big Lebowski). Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is the pneumatic-cattle-gun-toting psycho pursuing him. Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is the wearily noble sheriff pursuing both of them.
There, I just told you 95 percent of the plot. The chases and gunfights and whatnot, although riveting in their own right, are peripheral to the warring ideals these three men represent. Moss is a kind of everyman, flawed but sympathetic, courageous but fallible, caring but selfish. Chigurh is untroubled by such dualities; he is Evil embodied, dealing death not with glee or remorse or grandeur but a chilling matter-of-factness. Bell is the idealist, the holdover from some sort of mythical past in which justice was always served and the good guys won. The last twenty or so minutes of the film have been misinterpreted by many as anticlimactic and arbitrary, but they are in fact an illumination of the film's philosophy, previously only seen in miniature. It's the kind of coda that makes your heart sink, in that good sort of way. The entire film seems to center around the question of the value of principles in an arbitrary world - not a new idea, but neither is it often explored with such grace and fluidity.
From what I've read on the Interwebs, McCarthy's narrative and dialogue are more or less unchanged onscreen. This frees the Coens to do what they do best, which is make movies that look cool and contain idiosyncratic performances; Roger Deakins' cinematography, as always, is remarkable, suffusing the barren Texas landscape with painterly dread, and the acting is uniformly stellar. The role of Chigurh demands that he essentially be unknowable, and after America's long-standing love affair with impossibly eloquent and charming serial killers (Lecter, Doe et al), it's a relief that Bardem is able to resist burdening his character with tics or witticisms. He kills people because killing people is what he does, and it'll give you the heebie-jeebies if you're looking for them. Brolin acquits himself nicely as well; he is destined to become a mainstay in what Vern calls Badass Cinema. The real surprise, though, is that Tommy Lee Jones is able to imbue a pretty stock Tommy Lee Jones role with legitimate pathos. He looks like he's lived for a hundred years; when he speaks, it sounds like a thousand.
I have no idea how to end this review. But that's okay because, with apologies to Robert Altman, death is the only ending. A