Favorite SP Critics

"No Country For Old Men"
Dir: Coen Brothers

T. B. Meek

The country of title is no country for any man — old, young or betwixt — that is unless you’re an amoral killer riding shotgun with death or an extremely resourceful and lucky son of a gun. That’s how Cormac McCarthy’s laconic, yet eerily poetic 2003 novel depicts the Texas outback in the early 1980’s: overrun by thugs, hit men and corporate drug dealers, none of which hold any regard for the law. And the few pure souls who get tossed in the mix don’t fare as well as they would in some other, more typical, Hollywood production—and that’s just one of the refreshing charms to No Country for Old Men.

The faithful adaptation is a return to Blood Simple territory for the Coen brothers, who, whether they know it or not, have a genuine knack for the dark, nasty and depraved (if you disagree, beyond Blood Simple, sample Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink or even Fargo). The catalyst for the border crossing mayhem that unfolds in somber, violent waves is fairly simple; on a hunting sojourn to an isolated ravine, semi-employed Vietnam vet, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin channeling a young Nick Nolte) stumbles upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone sour. There’s no last man standing, just bullet riddled bodies, a flatbed full of heroin and a satchel snug tight with two million dollars. Llewelyn leaves the smack but takes the cash.

Back in 1980, two million dollars would be equivalent ten or twenty million today so you can imagine the kind of attention Llewelyn draws. The drug exec., calling the shots from a glass encased office tower, hedges his bets by hiring several outfits to go after the green, with some of them even cannibalizing each other during the languorous game of cat and mouse. Hot on Llewelyn’s trail are a gaggle of faceless, Uzi wielding Mexicans, a PI (Woody Harrelson) with a reputation for cleaning up unseemly messes and a freakish incarnation known as Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Chagrin possesses no limits or fear, and almost to the point of god-like omnipotence, he’s in control of every situation, regarding life or death tensions or a blaze of bullets with all the heavy weariness of having to file taxes. As such, you’d think Chigurh would be an imposing specter, but not so, he’s cursed with a foppish Prince Valliant coif that never loses its form, even when strangling a deputy during a physical and protracted take down; and then there’s his bizarre artillery, the oxygen tank that doubles as an air gun and the mother of all silencers that caps an enormous rifle. He’s cartoonish, yet lethal, and by the middle of the film you realize there’s something profoundly biblical about Chigurh. The purpose and conviction with which stalks the bleak landscape is akin to that of Death’s in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal; though, by the end of the film, Chigurh’s actions seem more the deeds of the Devil than an avenging angel or loyal foot soldier.

In such a universe, one might think Llewelyn out matched, and he is; but as the stakes rise, he proves more than capable at staying alive and sheltering his wife (Kelly Macdonald) from harm’s way. His resolve and resilience inspire even if his hubris sits on his shoulder like a ticking bomb. His one potential saving grace comes in the form of Tommy Lee Jones' Sheriff Bell. He’s a dinosaur, and a tired one at that, but he’s world-wise and sharp enough to know that Llewelyn’s stepped into a hornet’s nest of evil.

Not all the various threads wind up in the same place at the same time. The conclusion, just as in the book, is a quick flurry that initially feels unsatisfying, but as you walk out of the dark magic land of the theater and return to your safe world, the profound effect of the film begins to take hold. No Country for Old Men doesn’t offer heroes; instead it bears its gray soul. It’s a modern western more concerned with philosophy and destiny than balancing the scales of good and evil.

-- T. B. Meek

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