“No Country For Old Men”: A Second Opinion
I think of myself as a Coen Brothers fan. Honestly, I do, even though I’ve never seen Fargo, their supposed masterpiece — a fact that might lose me a fair amount of readership before I even get to the end of this sentence (still here?). The Big Lebowski will undoubtedly be in my top 10 movies of all time when the dust settles (it’s currently at #11), and O Brother Where Art Thou will probably be in my top 100. The Ladykillers — although it likely won’t make an appearance in my top 250 — was entertaining enough.
Well, make room for No Country For Old Men. Make room to see it at the theater. Make room for it in your DVD collection. Make room for it in your list of the greatest all-time movies. Really, it’s that good.
No Country is set in Texas in 1980. The anchor of the story, as intimated in the movie trailer, is a satchel of drug money carried home by Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) after he finds it near the corpse-strewn site of an ill-fated drug deal. Turns out somebody was interested in getting their money back, surprisingly enough, and it’s not long before Moss is on the run from the bad-news collections man, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Chigurh hunts for Moss and his satchel in a manner so methodical and unrelenting that it saturates every little nook of the movie with an all-enveloping tension and dread. The pacing of the pursuit is alternately swift and measured, depending on what befalls each of the men as their respective paths meander toward an eventual intersection.
But despite the gunfire, the chases, the struggles, and the occasional explosion, what gripped me the most was the quiet: the “space between.” It’s there, just behind the weathered voice of Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) telling us about how the lawmen used to be in those parts, in those desert towns near where he grew up. It’s there, as Moss hunts a pack of deer in the desert with his rifle, in every click… of… his… scope… as he calibrates his aim, never moving his eyes from his living target, with only a light breeze as an aural backdrop. The closest touchstone here might be The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: recall the opening scene, unveiling an empty landscape of desert and wind, until a second later, a man’s close-up face, lined and stubbled, swings crisply into view, and for three or four seconds he simply stares — right through the camera, at the horizon behind you. Such it is with No Country For Old Men: an excellent story, told at the pace that fits it, never rushing, dwelling on all the right details, and free of the cinematic artifice (like heavy-handed scores) that too often serves to remind you that, oh yeah, this is just a movie.
Every one of the characters in the film is terrific; not just Jones’ aging sheriff, Brolin’s go-it-alone everyman, Harrelson’s too-smart bounty hunter, and Kelly Macdonald’s role as Moss’s wife, but all of the incidental characters we happen upon along the way. It’s the canvas of everyday folk — from the gas station owner to the manager of Moss’s trailer park — that undergirds the film’s fundamental believability.
Of all of them, though, I’d be willing to bet that one will stick in your mind more than any other: Bardem’s Anton Chigurh. He’s the rare bad guy who stands apart from all the other bad guys you’ve ever seen, who is so different — in his posture, his idioms, his tone of voice, his method of killing, and his uniquely twisted sense of ethics — that he trods deftly through the minefield of antagonist cliches so well stocked by those before him, and becomes a template all his own. The fear of this guy comes not only from the fact that he murders without guilt or even that he seems to like it, but that he sees it as his duty, and that clemency might arbitrarily be granted by the unseen workings of a mind gone wrong, and can hinge — clad in the armor of moral certainty — on no more than coin toss.
Did I say that Fargo is considered the Coen Brothers’ finest work? Oops. A fair amount of reportage says the 1996 movie might’ve just defaulted to the title of runner-up, has-been, also-ran. I know that hurts to hear, dear Fargo people; and maybe the zeitgeist has it all wrong. Maybe this is a case of the new and shiny getting top billing over the…well, 1996, all deeper quality issues aside. But why listen to anyone else? Do what I plan to do: Hit the theater, if you haven’t seen No Country yet; pull out the DVD of Fargo, if you haven’t seen it recently; watch them both. Weigh their relative merits. And then call it. Friend-o.
If No Country For Old Men ain’t the Coens’ masterpiece, it’ll do till the masterpiece gets here.