No Country for Old Men (2007, Joel & Ethan Coen)
The experience of seeing No Country for Old Men theatrically in 2007 was so magical and unnerving that for years, having not viewed it a second time until recently, I assumed that a lot of what made it tick was the unsettling coldness of not knowing where the film was taking us (despite familiarity with the source text, a fine novel by Cormac McCarthy that’s quite faithfully but still audaciously filmed here). The winding alleyways and dark subtext of the film’s elegant, bare story gave the effect that only the greatest thrillers achieve: that of being picked up and thrown around a room by a master. It was a film in which every bet was off, including visually — night had never looked like this — and without the Coens fully in control of one’s field of vision, could it ever have the same enchanting impact?
The upshot is that all this time, I’ve been underselling the movie. Rediscovering it on a tiny TV screen was in many ways an even more revelatory experience. I remembered it fondly enough, but it vastly outpaces my penciled-in outlines of its central ideas: Javier Bardem’s killing machine versus Josh Brolin’s perpetual loser and Tommy Lee Jones’ deeply moral lawman — it’s suspenseful, yes, and it is a western after a certain fashion, but its admirable tension is only the superficial element that allows it to impart its venom. Clearly now, No Country is about American violence and moral degradation as much as Rear Window is about voyeurism and Psycho is about identity; you just can’t catch your breath long enough to notice initially.
But in the subject matter that dovetails with its terrifying, leap-frogging structure is a far more observant and challenging treatise on violence than Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Of course, McCarthy’s moral judgments and apocalyptic worldview — later crystallized in The Road — are the function of a resignation, a generational exhaustion, and the Coens’ filmmaking is too vital to fully carve this out in their medium. In every other respect (every important one, indeed), their work here transposes the themes of the novel with magnificent ease and precision. A story of one man’s overwhelmed sense of loss becomes the story of a world that bends and breaks under the force of an unstoppable evil. Not exactly neorealism, but highest conflicted, challenging art. McCarthy’s spare prose, indeed, seems nearly to have been made for the Coens.
My opinion of the two maverick directors has always been a bit reserved; until somewhat recently, I felt their best film to be the somewhat unpopular The Hudsucker Proxy (eclipsed now by this film and A Serious Man), and their myriad story problems and weirdly off-putting attitude toward perceived simple folk has long kept me from praising them unreservedly. But this film conquers all of that, showing their typical epidemic of one-dimensional, openly mocked side characters only sporadically; if anything, they humanize a Texas that other filmmakers would cast in an unfairly reductive light. Both Llewelyn and Carla Moss, the everycouple targeted by Chigurh for their semi-accidental role in swiping the spoils of a drug deal gone wrong, are full-bodied, charming, sympathetic characters, well-realized by Brolin and by the sad-eyed and doomed Kelly Macdonald. McCarthy, meanwhile, helps the brothers avoid their tendency toward narrative shortcuts; their giddiness at keeping a literary adaptation as straight as possible gives us what is unquestionably one of the bravest, most stark endings in American cinematic history. The pleasures are horrors are so consistent to the very final seconds that to see the film is as much an endless pleasure and bag of windshield-shattering tricks as The Lady Vanishes; it never violates itself or cops out.
To end a film like this on a quiet note of hopelessness is the sort of thing we decry Hollywood for avoiding, but when a product of the mainstream goes all the way with an idea, we’re reminded of why America was once the cinematic capital of the world: the largeness of this film’s idiosyncracies make it breathtaking art. Indeed, in this particular case, every decision the Coens make in their sandbox is the right one — and the system allowed it for once. Even briefly disregarding the ending, and to say nothing of the lack of a music score, the equally controversial decision to kill Brolin offscreen after he’s been the audience’s vessel for well over an hour is a massively bold stunt that would’ve hamstrung the average studio executive’s best commercial judgments. Good thing art in film is still an occasional possibility on these shores.
Directors, actors, novelists, editors, all vital elements of this intoxicating brew nevertheless sit in the shadow of this film’s most indispensable author: cinematographer Roger Deakins, arguably the best living D.P. in the industry (and with the loss of Harris Savides, you can maybe drop the “arguably”). The nighttime shots in the first act of this film are as alarmingly beautiful as anything that’s been captured on film, and truly magic, atmospheric, and successful in their dual invocation of majesty and suspense. Deakins is perhaps the most integral factor in the Coens’ success at so astutely representing a time and place — West Texas circa 1980 — with its constant parade of convenience stores and cheap motels.
Brolin, MacDonald, and Woody Harrelson all ably contribute their best work to date as well, but they inevitably operate as underlings to Tommy Lee Jones’ steady-handed revelation as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell and, of course, Bardem’s characterization of one of filmdom’s most menacing villains ever. American movies that have cast Bardem since have done so in cartoonish reductions of this same part (see Skyfall in particular), but this hasn’t diluted the power of the original work, in which Chigurh’s invisibility and seemingly unstoppable force of evil is the living, breathing thesis statement of the picture. It’s both a trim and neat performance of terrifying power and a metaphorically rich ball of fire, unceasingly reminding Bell and all the unfortunates that fall into his presence: you are no longer safe.
The film gets away with this level of pessmism, likely silly in the hands of a Clint Eastwood or William Friedkin, thanks to its balance of wit with stone-cold seriousness, contradictory messages and endless interpretability. The film gently mocks suggestions that a generation lacking in “respect” is responsible for the existence of a killing machine like Chigurh, but also does not ignore the devastating implications of Chigurh’s presence in the world — and the slowly dawning, dreadful fact that nothing can or will stop him. All this falls on Jones’ eyes believably, terrifyingly; he’ll never be the same, and we probably won’t either. This may be the best thriller of the current century.