Film review: No Country for Old Men

2008-03-17 00:00

No Country for Old Men is a very violent film, but one of the most harrowing scenes contains no actual violence. In it, implacable psychopath Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) verbally torments the owner of a gas station, throwing the man off balance with mocking questions and then flipping a coin, telling him to “call it”. Perplexed, the man asks what he is risking. “Everything”. We know this is true, because we have already seen Chigurh at work more than once.

The story is in some ways a chase thriller. In a desolate stretch of Texas, close to the Mexican border, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles on a drug deal gone violently wrong, and walks off with the cash, more than $2 million in an attaché case. He knows it is a stupid thing to do, but not nearly as surely as we do, when we realise that Chigurh is searching for the money. In the first moments of the film, he has killed two people, one with brute strength, one with clinical efficiency, both with utter detachment. Moss knows someone will come looking for the money, but we know how terrible that someone is. And this is all we know about Chigurh.

The story is framed by the thoughts of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). He has been sheriff since he was 25 and he is weary with seeing all the bad that men do. What has changed is what they do it for: drugs.

Moss, a Vietnam veteran (the setting is 1980), is a self-sufficient, methodical, resourceful man and it seems he might have a chance of outrunning Chigurh — but he cannot outrun fate.

The film is played out between a triangle of big, craggy men. Bardem, who won almost every award as Chigurh, has a huge head, too big, it seems, for the rest of him, emphasised by a horrible pageboy haircut. One thing this does is make it possible to recognise Chigurh in silhouette and from a distance — we can see fate coming.

In a conventional chase film, there is a satisfying resolution. The hunted either gets away (if we’re supposed to be on his side) or is caught. Don’t expect anything quite so neat from this film. It winds the tension to a sickening pitch and then offers few easy rewards.

No Country for Old Men, which won the best picture Oscar and a host of earlier awards, represents a perfect blending of Joel and Ethan Coen’s dark, quirky style with the bleak world of the borderlands inhabited by author Cormac McCarthy in a series of desolate, haunting novels.

The Coens began their careers in dark territory with Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing, later turning to black comedy. In Fargo, for which they won an earlier screenwriting Oscar, violence and farcical comedy met in a film that is at once very funny and terribly bloody. Their previous films have been mostly their own inventions, within the deliberate confines of genre: noir crime thiller, caper, screwball comedy. Their least successful (The Ladykillers) was a remake. But here, they have adapted a novel with a highly idiosyncratic style remarkably faithfully (they won the best adapted screenplay Oscar as well), while making a film that is unmistakably a Coen Brothers picture.

This is not a film for a mass audience. It is bleak, deadpan, relentlessly violent. But it is fine filmmaking, the cinematography finding a grim beauty in the wide dusty spaces; the performances detailed, unflashy; the minimal dialogue (mostly word for word from McCarthy) with its own odd cadences and black humour. *****

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