Thursday, March 6, 2014

No Country for Old Men

How to describe No Country for Old Men (2007), directed by Joel and Ethan Coen based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy? At it's most basic level, it's a chase movie. Stylistically, it could be described as a film noir for how dark it is, yet it could also be called a modern-day western because so much of its action occurs in the harsh, unforgiving plains of Texas, and there are a few standoffs and shootouts. But by the very nature of its creator and adapters, the movie can't help but have an edge to it, a peculiar sense of humor when the blood's not flowing.

No Country for Old Men centers on three men: Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a hunter who stumbles on money from a drug deal gone bad; Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a psychopathic killer who tracks Moss; and Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a sheriff who tries to find Moss so he can protect him. There are other characters - Moss's wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald), Mexican drug dealers, bounty hunter Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), a businessman with some investment in the drug deal (Stephen Root), and more - but Moss, Chigurh, and Bell are the wheels driving the plot.

With that story, there are certain conventions we expect, specifically a final showdown between Moss and Chigurh with Bell coming in as the Seventh Cavalry to save the day; that's how the story probably would have played out in a more traditional narrative, but the Coens and McCarthy are anything but traditional. Yes, there is a resolution to this three-man chase, and yes, there are violent action scenes, but instead of turning into a story into a routine thriller, the movie becomes a meditation on the evil in the world; the random, arbitrary nature of death; and the despair the good feels in such a cruel, hostile place.

"You don't have to do this," say a number of people to Chigurh just before he kills them. Some try to bargain with him, some plead, and others run, but he is a man who cannot be reasoned with or talked out of doing what he sets out to do. "I would say he doesn't have a sense of humor," says Wells. "You could even say he has principles." In some ways, Chigurh is presented an incarnation of death itself: dark, emotionless, unstoppable, cold, he strikes silently from the shadows. Even his choice of weapons, an air gun used for killing cattle that shoots a bullet in the brain and sucks it back out along with a silenced shotgun, demonstrates a killer who has elevated himself to that of superior being over the men he hunts. When Moss shoots him in the leg, Chigurh's response is gruesome, clinical self-surgery. No one who encounters this monster emerges unscathed, even if he elects not to kill them.

Just as unforgiving and relentless as Chigurh is the environment. The film takes place in Texas, often along lonely highways under the blazing desert sun or in out-of-the-way gas stations and rundowns motel. There's little life in this world, and what life there is is often easily discarded, destroyed, or otherwise rendered meaningless. It's a world devoid of comfort, solace, or safety. Curiously, the film doesn't feature much in the way of music. The only music I can recall is played over the end credits; the movie lacks a musical soundtrack in several key scenes, including a cat-and-mouse shootout between Moss and Chigurh, but oddly enough, that proves an effective decision on the part of the Coens. Music tends to under the action of scene, but here, the lack of music creates a more desolate, lonely feeling; nothing is coming to help you as this killer gives chase.

Trying to escape this desolation, in more than one way, is Moss. The money he takes to provide him and his wife a better life sets off a pursuit he can never quite get away from. He's tough, determined, capable of thinking on his feet, but it seems no matter where he goes or how fast he is, Chigurh is always right behind him. Moss seeks to secure a better future, but he only invites death.

Right behind Chigurh is Bell, the grizzled lawman who has seen it all and still can't believe how horrible it all really is. The crimes he's encountered in his long years with the badge have never failed to shock or appall him, and they're weighing him down into despair. The sheriffs of years past, he says, rarely wore guns, but now, in his supposed golden years, Bell can only wonder whether his efforts have amounted to anything. In an interesting narrative decision, Bell has no direct encounters with Moss and Chigurh (who have two with each other, a shootout and a phone call), but he bears witness to their trail of death.

No Country for Old Men is as thrilling and suspenseful as just about any thriller you'd care to name, but because it's a Coen brothers' film, you know their peculiar sense of humor will sneak in somehow. Chigurh's encounters with random people are darkly funny; he is so ramrod uncompromising, they don't know what to make of him. Sort of like nervous, quiet laughter in the face of death. Meanwhile, Bell's observations, even when talking about horrific things, are rather folksy and blunt. The Coens also find laughs in the little details: Chigurgh wearing only socks to sneak up on people and stopping in Moss's trailer for a drink of milk, for example.

No Country for Old Men won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2008, and it's really hard to argue with that honor. It's bleak, violent, intense, exciting, poetic, and funny as it mixes and subverts so many different genres and expectations. I'd add one word: masterful.

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