The bodies pile up faster than you can say “Blood Simple” in Joel and Ethan Coen’s new neo-noir, “No Country For Old Men”, a true return to classic form and one of the most confidently assured pieces of pure filmmaking that I have seen in quite some time.
The Coen’s screenplay (adapted quite faithfully from the Cormac McCarthy novel) is rich in characterization and thankfully devoid of the self-consciously “quirky” tics that have left some of their efforts from the past several years teetering on the verge of self-parody.
The story is set circa 1980, amongst the sagebrush and desert heat of the Tex-Mex border, where the deer and the antelope play. One day, a pickup-drivin’ good ol’ boy named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is out shootin’ at some food (the playful antelope) when he suddenly encounters a fleeing, grievously wounded pit bull. The trail of blood leads him to discover the grisly aftermath of a major shootout. The one lone survivor is too dehydrated to talk, but a pickup truck loaded with heroin and a satchel stuffed with 2 million in cash speak volumes about what went down. Llewelyn skedaddles back to the trailer to tell sweet young wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) to pack a bag and start thinking about early retirement.
“Someone” is always going to miss 2 million dollars, naturally, and the antelope hunter quickly becomes the hunted. Enter one of the most unique movie heavies in recent memory-Anton Chigurh (a supremely focused Javier Bardem) who has been hired to track down the money, with extreme prejudice. Chigurh is a textbook sociopath (he literally slaughters people like cattle, with a pneumatic prod); but he does appear to live by a code (of sorts). It’s not unlike the same kind of twisted code that drives Lee Van Cleef’s heartless “Angel Eyes” character in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” to see his contracts through to the end, regardless of any “collateral damage” that may ensue.
In fact, the Coens do seem to be channeling Sergio Leone all throughout “No Country For Old Men”. If Chigurh is the “bad” (the “Angel Eyes” of the story) and Llewelyn is the “ugly” (like “Tuco”, he’s a smarter-than-he-looks oaf who has a native talent for crafty opportunism) then Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is the “good”, and the conscience of the story (he’s the only player in the chase who doesn’t have a self-serving agenda and shows genuine compassion toward the suffering of others). He’s an old-school, Gary Cooper-ish “lawman” who (you guessed it) comes from a long line of “lawmen”. Jones has become the “go to” actor for principled characters with a “lived in” look, and, true to form, the sheriff’s face is a craggy, world-weary roadmap of someone who has reluctantly borne witness to every inhumanity man is capable of, and is counting down the days to his looming retirement (‘cos it’s becoming no country for old men…)
Complicating the chase even more is the addition of one of Chigurh’s professional rivals, Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson, in a nicely droll performance) an ex-green beret who has also been hired to chase down the loot (by a competing employer).
The actors are uniformly excellent. Bardem’s portrayal of Chigurh is very understated, but still quite menacing, made all the more uber-creepy by his benign Peter Tork haircut. His character is a man of few words; in the few scenes where he does “engage” conversation, it is with the detached, feigned interest of a clinical psychiatrist who is watching the clock and wishing the session would end so he could get to the golf course.
The always dependable Tommy Lee Jones is solid throughout, and gets to deadpan some of the choicest lines in the script. Josh Brolin excels in his role here, and is fast becoming one of my favorite rising young character actors (I thought his relatively small supporting role in “American Gangster” was a real standout as well).
With all of its tailor-made twists and turns, this type of tale is a slam-dunk for the Coens, and they gleefully take the ball and run with it. Everything about the film is pitch-perfect --- the script, the casting, the editing, you name it. The cinematography is expertly handled as per usual by Roger Deakins, who has been the brothers’ DP of choice since “Barton Fink”. While there are a few signature Coen camera shots (the “front bumper cam” eating up the asphalt, the obsession with characters whizzing past “now entering…”/”now leaving…” highway signs), they are used judiciously and serve the narrative well. As per usual, it’s the masterful implementation of little details (the use of ambient sound, subtle POV perspectives and an uncanny ability to milk suspense from focusing on the most mundane objects) that make this very much a “Coen brothers film”.