Virtually every review I have seen of Joel and Ethan Coen’s new movie announces that it marks a return to form for the brothers and places it in their singular canon squarely alongside such early noir efforts as Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing. These assessments are only half right.
This is a great movie. And nobody in their right mind really believes Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing are great movies. The masterwork beside which No Country for Old Men stands is Fargo. Snow has been replaced by desert dust, and the dark humor has been all but drained out. Nonetheless, the two are perfect, almost interlocking companion pieces.
Both films, for example, are told from the vantage point of a small-town police officer who cannot quite believe what the world is coming to. Remember the marvelous scene toward the end of Fargo when Frances McDormand has a hired killer handcuffed in the backseat of her squad car? As she drives him to the station, she inquires, with a mixture of bewilderment and pity, what on Earth possessed him to do the things he did. “There’s more to life than money, you know. Don’t you know that?” she asks. “And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day . . . I just don’t understand it.”
Her sentiments are echoed by the new film’s opening voice-over. It is delivered by Tommy Lee Jones in the role of Ed Tom Bell, a third-generation Texas border-town sheriff. Nearing retirement, he reflects back on the “old-timers” who kept the peace in that barren countryside before him, and on a new breed of law breaker that has appeared on the scene like an accident of evolution. He recalls a teenage boy he sent to the electric chair for killing his girlfriend in cold blood. “I don’t know what to make of that,” he says. “I surely don’t. The crime you see now; it’s hard to even take its measure.”
Both movies also follow the trail of blood leading to a suitcase filled with cash. Josh Brolin gives a career-making performance as Llewelyn Moss, a poor welder who goes antelope hunting one day and happens on the scene of a drug deal gone bad. He surveys the bullet-ridden pickups, guns and dead bodies, but it’s what he doesn’t see that interests him most. Moments later, he finds it: $2 million in drug money.
Moss knows trouble will follow the case wherever he takes it. But he has survived trouble before — two tours in Vietnam — and likes his chances. He wildly underestimates the threat to his own and his family’s well-being, however. Nothing in the jungles of southeast Asia could possibly have prepared him for Anton Chigurh.
For years I’ve maintained that Javier Bardem is one of the world’s most underrated actors. I don’t think he’s going to have that problem anymore. A hired killer who looks as if he’d be more than happy to do his gruesome job for free, Chigurh is the most transfixing screen creation of the year. With his Beatle haircut and a compressed-air-powered cattle gun at his side, he’s the creepiest, most iconic embodiment of evil to wreak movie havoc since Dennis Hopper sucked on that gas mask in Blue Velvet. He’s been charged with finding the missing drug money, and woe to anyone who gets in his way. He eventually murders even the man who hired him — but no matter. Woe to Brolin’s character all the same.
No Country for Old Men is very possibly the finest film of 2007. It’s certainly the finest the Coens have ever made. It’s just an unearthly, harrowing affair, and, as ghastly as some of its images are, I defy you to close your eyes or look away for an instant. Each scene is a more perfect and haunting creation than the one preceding it.
Cormac McCarthy’s source material is masterfully adapted, his spare dialogue delivered with stirring precision. The filmmakers turn his novel into a sort of world-weary cowboy poetry (fittingly, as its title is taken from Yeats), and the camera work of frequent Coen collaborator Roger Deakins imbues the movie with a gloomy, scorched beauty worthy of the world’s last Western. Which the film smacks of, especially when Jones, ready to hang up his guns, confides to a grizzled friend, “I feel over-matched.”
Award season’s far from over, but something tells me a great many directors will find themselves all too able to relate.