Monday, April 2, 2012

No Country for Old Men

I've read Cormac McCarthy before. Probably a year or so ago (there's a review on this blog somewhere) I read The Road, a chilling post-apocalyptic tale. It was downright depressing. Its writing was tight and spared no words. And, somehow, that style of writing made the setting come alive. You wouldn't expect it but, when used correctly, a little detail can be more effective than a lot. Even now I can remember mental images of scenes within that novel as well as how its writing powerfully brought them forth from within me.

Through some miracle of movie-making, the Coen brothers manage to replicate McCarthy's writing style in their direction of another of his novels gone to film: No Country for Old Men.

Minimalist Intensity

Dialogue is at a minimum. Shots are slow and firm. The camera dancing and shaking of other movies these days is avoided. You watch, glued to the screen, as characters do tasks that, despite their menial nature, hold your attention without wavering. Background music barely exists, arising infrequently and only when you are at your most unsettled. But I don't want to mislead; No Country for Old Men isn't a horror movie. But it is a deliberative, dark, and cynical blend between thriller and drama.

We follow three characters whose destinies are intertwined in different ways, even if some of them never meet. Josh Brolin plays Llewelyn Moss, a Vietnam veteran in Texas who finds two million dollars and runs off with it. Javier Bardem plays Anton Chigurh, a truly disturbing serial killer who pursues Moss. And Tommy Lee Jones plays Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, the law enforcer who wants to figure out why corpses keep turning up and what is going on. What follows is one of the most intense cat-and-mouse hunts I've ever seen.

That Chill Down Your Spine

Why so incredible? The filming and the characters. It's hard to emphasize just how powerful an experience it is to see the implacable advance of Chigurh as he follows hint after hint as to where Moss has run to next. It is a chase reminiscent of the Terminator movies; no matter what you do, he just keeps coming, destroying anything in his path without remorse. But this killer is quiet, creepy, and brutally effective, ascribing to some warped set of principles that has him kill some but spare others. Sometimes he whips out a coin, insists that you call it, then kills you if you choose wrong, all without explaining why or what he is doing. Or sometimes he doesn't. He's completely divorced from the normal rules of society, but yet you gather that he does have some sort of rules that he holds himself to. But they are so alien as to be unfathomable to you or me.

And yet, what makes the movie especially gripping is the fact that his prey, Llewelyn Moss, is quite smart himself. This is a man who has made multiple tours of Vietnam and who fits the archetype of the self-sufficient and capable Western cowboy. He's both street-smart and knows how to kill. Part of the fun is watching how each man does their best to lose or track one another, preparing as many traps and contingencies as possible. And, despite being understandably a little freaked out by Chigurh, Moss never loses his cool.

Lastly, we have Sheriff Bell, who, while he has plenty of experience, is one who is clearly out of his element. He is a man of the past, unable to comprehend or change to understand how men like Chigurh can exist. His character is the reason the title for this movie (and the book) is what it is; Bell serves to follow in the wake of Chigurh and Moss' devastation so that he (and, by extension, the audience) can dwell on how this is all possible. Through him, we ponder concepts such as the fragility of life, the ephemeral solidity of morals, and whether good people can make a difference in the face of such mindless violence. Though his character has a relatively minimal effect on the overall plot, Bell is our lens of sanity into a world that is as ruthless as it is savage.


In spite of the incredibly dark nature of No Country for Old Men, the well-known charm of the Coen brothers shines through to make sure that not all is gloomy. It is subdued, but definitely noticeable. Moss' confrontation with the hilariously stereotypical United States border guard is one example. A landlord's casual dismissal of Chigurh is another. These are moments that entertain while still holding to the tone of the film.

As is abundantly obvious, I highly recommend this movie. It is probably my favorite Coen brothers film and, if you are able to handle mature themes and some nasty violence, it is one of the best of its genre. Be sure to check it out if you haven't already.