Sunday, February 1, 2009

No Country for Old Men

Though I'm not exactly going out on a limb taste-wise, it's prudent that I admit my biases: I love the Coen brothers. Out of 13 films from 1984's Blood Simple to last year's Burn After Reading, I've loved all but two, and only disliked one (The Ladykillers). I consider several to be classics if not masterpieces, and a number of them would easily end up on my list of favorite films. Yet one film stands above them all. No Country for Old Men, the Coens' adaptation of the brilliant author Cormac McCarthy's bestseller, is the finest film in the brothers' brilliant oeuvre, and quite possibly the greatest film of the decade.

Tommy Lee Jones' Sheriff Bell drawls over the opening shots of the beautifully desolate Texas landscape as he describes a child killer he sent to death row. "I don't know what to make of that," he wearily sighs, "I surely don't." This monologue, seemingly disconnected from the events about to unfold, forms the backbone of the film. Though we watch the killer Anton Chigurh chase Llewelyn Moss over West Texas, the real story is Bell's inability to cope with evil in this world, and his difficulty comprehending a creature as sadistic as Chigurh.

Chigurh wastes no time establishing himself as something to be feared. An officer arrests him at the start, brings him back to the station, and promptly gets strangled by Chigurh's handcuffs. Then he takes some sort of air cannon and heads back out onto the road. Javier Bardem plays Chigurh as an undefinable evil: his name connotes no nationality, nor his accent.

Meanwhile, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) goes hunting and stumbles upon a botched drug deal. He finds one barely alive Mexican and a satchel full of $2 million. He returns home to his wife, stashes the money, and goes to sleep. Then his conscience gets the better of him, and he grabs a jug of water to take to the dying man. A noble gesture, but a terrible mistake.

The result is a taut thriller, almost entirely unaided by music. Chigurh arrives at the site of the deal looking for his money, and sets about tracking down Moss. It's a deceptively simple story with a decidedly Coens bent. Apart from the three leads, we meet Moss' wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald, sporting an accent so authentic you'd swear she was born and raised in Texas), a sleazy businessman who has a stake in the drug deal (Stephen Root) and Carson Wells (woody Harrelson), a bounty hunter who knows all too well about Chigurh but apparently not enough to be genuinely afraid.

Most Coen brothers films involve money, and in most that money serves as a MacGuffin. No Country is no different; at one point Moss meets Wells, who offers protection from Chigurh. Wells tells him that he cannot make deals with Chigurh, because "he has a set of principles. Principles that transcend money or drugs or anything like that." Chigurh is out for blood simply because he is.

The dialogue of the brothers' films oscillates between sparse and loquacious, from the silent suffering of Billy Bob Thornton's Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn't There to the nonstop stream of profanities in The Big Lebowski. No Country belongs firmly in the former category; it may be the least dialogue they've ever written. Yet it still, in spots, runs over with their endlessly dark, Flannery O'Connor-influenced wit. The best example of this is the memorable scene in which Chigurh speaks with a gas station attendant who annoys him. It leads to a coin toss and a tense buildup in which both the attendant and the audience slowly come to realize that the man's life is at stake. Not only is it incredibly tense, but it rather slyly sets up Chigurh's total madness.

It's difficult to talk about the film without spoiling everything, so let me pull back and mention the actual craft of the film. As someone without even a semseter of "Introduction to Film Studies" under his belt, I confess I know precious little about the craft of film. Now, I can look at a film and tell you what it's trying to say, and I've pored over Expressionist and Expressionist-influenced cinema to look for symbolism, but the mis-en-scène still eludes me. Yet this film so positively overflows with technical brilliance that even a neophyte like myself must sit in awe.

Earlier I mentioned an almost total lack of music. Normally, thrillers rely on a tense score to help things along, but the Coens subvert the notion. Instead, they have to rely on the sheer power of editing. The Coens, who edit their films themselves under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes, manage to pace a series of bleak landscapes into a gradually mounting nail-biter. To fill the aural void, sound designer Craig Berkey and editor (and longtime collaborator) Skip Levsey pump up every noise in the film. Wind becomes the score, and silence is deafening. They use sound so expertly that you're always expecting something bad to happen, and the dull thud of Chigurh's cattlegun pierces the air like a thundercrack. It's so good that even now, after a half-dozen viewings of the film, I still jump when Chigurh blows the lock off a door.

But as much as the editing and sound make this a technical marvel, Roger Deakins' pristine cinematography pushes it over the top. Deakins is one of the few cinematographers that even film neophytes could name, and the man is certainly the best working in the business today. Of all his work however, No Country might be his best. While the lighting department surely deserves a lot of credit for this, Deakins' ability to capture gallery-worthy shots at every turn with the absolute perfect amount of light burns the film into your brain. After all, something's got to fill the gap between dialogue, and even those moments of chilling silence courtesy of Berkey and Livsey, and Deakins rises to the challenge magnificently. I have a hard time picking between this and The Assassination of Jesse James as his finest work, but who cares? The winner is all of us.

The film ends as it begins, with a monologue from Jones, which sums up the themes as much as the opening speech presented them: evil in this world cannot be defeated, and to even understand evil one would have to immerse himself into it. Yet it also runs deeper than that: as the title suggests, Sheriff Bell laments through his narrations and conversations with other characters that something fundamental has changed in society for the worst. Near the end of the film, as Bell plans to retire after the Chigurh case takes it toll, his uncle, wheelchair-bound as a result of a shooting, chastises Bell. He relates a story of one of their relatives who was shot in the head and left to slowly bleed to death at the turn of the century over 75 years ago, and the uncle's very existence proves that horrible violence has always existed. He passively derides the notion that things used to be grand until the teenagers started listening to the Clash. Bell still retires, but in his final speech, concerning a dream he had, he clearly demonstrates that he finally understands this: he tells his wife of dreaming of his father. "And in the dream I knew that he was goin' on ahead and he was fixin' to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there." Here he's placing his father, along with his perception's of the simpler time his dad represents, on a pedestal. As he wanders this foul wilderness, he can see his father up ahead preparing a fire to light the way and to warm him when he gets there. Then Bell concludes, "And then I woke up." You can read into this a deep cynicism, even nihilism, but I interpret this as Bell's self-awareness at his foolishness. Yes, he realizes that his idealistic view of the past was a dream, but now he can accept that and perhaps come to cope with the world around him. It's not much cheerier, I'll grant, but it's a fascinating way to address contemporary concerns of the direction we've taken.

Many take issue to the ending as an anti-climax or hopeless, which makes me wonder where they've been for the past 20 years of the Coen brothers' careers. I won't waste words, especially in discussing such a brutally direct film as this: I think it's a perfect end to a perfect film. If you still haven't seen No Country for Old Men, go buy it now.

1 comment:

  1. As one reviewer described it, the last twenty minutes of No Country is when prose switches to poetry. The cut-throat dog-eat-dog plot that takes up much of the film is elevated, and becomes (no kidding) a model for the nature of human civilization. We strive for progress -- to become more than we are. But this is elusive. It is a dream.

    I'm not as big a fan of the Coens as you. Their goofiness puts me off. I do think this is their best film (of the ones I've seen), maybe because they managed to restrain the goofy. I'm also prone to attribute most of the credit for the film's genius to Cormac McCarthy. The Coens just did the (really extraordinary) job of bringing him to the screen.