There is no soundtrack except the lonely whisper of the wind across a vast and empty Texas skyline. This is Cormac McCarthy country, hard country, and it is no country for civilized people, no country for the weak and sentimental, no country for dreamers, and above all, no country for old men. Such is the mythic grandeur surrounding Joel and Ethan Coen’s oddly haunting, surprisingly entertaining new thriller.
Joel and Ethan Coen share writer and director credit for this film, which is, if nothing else, a tribute to two things: the plainly profound beauty of McCarthy’s writing and the Coen’s humility before it; if this were a case of showing off, the directors would have found an easier way around what has been put there on purpose. The combination of the story and dialogue by McCarthy and the Coens’ genius with film has produced what very well may end up as the year’s best film.
The buzz about No Country for Old Men began earlier this year at the Cannes Film Fest where it was rapturously received. It never seemed like it could live up to that kind of hype, yet it defies the odds and not only lives up to the hype but well surpasses it. Even those who are befuddled by the plot will still have a hell of a ride getting there.
The film is not for everyone, of course. There’s no question that this is like an amusement ride through the corridors of hell, but for those who can take it they’ll revel in its audacity, its simplicity, its deliberateness.
No Country for Old Men revolves around three main characters, one very very bad, one good but outmatched, and one hovering somewhere in between. And of course, as with most things that go wickedly off-track, there is a satchel of money. Josh Brolin in a career-breakthrough performance plays Llewelyn Moss, a Vietnam vet who stumbles upon a crime scene out in the middle of Texas. Everybody is dead. Someone was out to rob the other ones and to get away with the cash, but death stopped him on the way out. Llewelyn seizes the opportunity to fix his trailer-park existence, with his trailer-park wife (the versatile Scottish actress Kelly MacDonald), and get away with the loot. Any fan of film noir knows that they never get away with the loot. But this film is so suspenseful from start to finish you never know how it’s going to end.
Things wouldn’t be so bad for Moss if he weren’t being hunted by a unique psychopath, Anton Chiguhr (Javier Bardem in what has to be the performance of the year), who prefers to use an air gun to shoot people rather than a regular gun, but he’ll use one of those if he has to. Without giving too much of the plot away, killing people is probably the thing in life Chiguhr does best, and he approaches it almost like an artist would.
What hopes to stop Chiguhr and keep Moss safe is Sheriff Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Bell learns that “you can’t stop what’s coming” because the evil is too fast and too smart. This is a film about the way he sees things more than it is a story about a robbery gone wrong or about the hopes and dreams of a war vet.
Every frame, every sound, is deliberate with this film, as it almost always is with the Coens. The difference with this film is that this isn’t a story the brothers could have told on their own, so they didn’t bother trying. They know that they are telling a McCarthy story, one about the changing of the guard in a manner of speaking. “You can’t stop what’s coming.”
There is a sad acknowledgment of the end of things in this film, which is perhaps why it resonates so strongly right here, right now. There is panic in the air, and the once-solid feeling of power and heroism is now clouded in self-doubt and fear. We live with the ubiquity of evil all around us. Is it real? Is it a ghost?
No Country for Old Men doesn’t give any answers, but it seems to draw a conclusion nonetheless – that this is no country for the men who used to follow the law and catch bad guys. Bell is himself a character whose role has expired even in films. There is sadness in his resignation, but there is also inevitability. What’s coming is something just beyond his grasp, something he’ll never see, let alone catch. He’ll always be looking over his shoulder, waiting.