Friday, May 2, 2014

The Films of the Coen Brothers: No Country For Old Men

No Country for Old Men (2007)
Directed by: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen.
Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen based upon the novel by Cormac McCarthy.
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones (Ed Tom Bell), Javier Bardem (Anton Chigurh), Josh Brolin (Llewelyn Moss), Woody Harrelson (Carson Wells), Kelly Macdonald (Carla Jean Moss), Garret Dillahunt (Wendell), Tess Harper (Loretta Bell), Barry Corbin (Ellis), Stephen Root (Man who hires Wells), Rodger Boyce (El Paso Sheriff), Beth Grant (Carla Jean's Mother), Gene Jones (Gas Station Proprietor).

Cormac McCarthy’s novels don’t lend themselves easily for the movies. This in part explains why the best book he has ever written – Blood Meridian – has gone through various directors over the years and never been made. That book, a violent masterpiece, is probably unadaptable. James Franco made Child of God into a movie last year (where I saw it at TIFF) – but could not make McCarthy’s dark tale of alienation and necrophilia into a coherent movie. Billy Bob Thornton’s adaptation of All the Pretty Horses may have worked – had Harvey Weinstein not interfered, and essentially cut the running time in half – what’s left looks like a pretty trailer for what might have been. John Hillcoat did a good job with The Road – or at least as good as I think can be done out of McCarthy’s masterpiece – but it still doesn’t come close to the novel. When McCarthy himself wrote a screenplay last year, the result was The Counsellor – a movie I loved, in part because it’s clear McCarthy had no idea how to write a “typical” screenplay and no desire to, and the result was a bizarre, over-the-top, nihilistic little gem – that was hated by pretty much everyone. The one time everything came together just write was with No Country for Old Men – the movie Joel & Ethan Coen turned into a masterpiece – and an very unlikely winner of Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay and Supporting Actor at the Oscars. It is one of the few films I would call perfect – where there is not a scene, performance or even a shot that seems out of place. It’s a daring film in that it doesn’t give audiences what they want or expect – but precisely what they need for the movie to work. McCarthy undoubtedly met the Coen’s halfway here – the book reads like it was written just so the Coen’s could adapt it – something that cannot be said about any other McCarthy book. The result is a perfect combination of the worldviews of the Coens (fairly nihilistic) and McCarthy (completely nihilistic).
The first three scenes introduce us to the three main characters in the story. First, we hear, but do not see Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) as he tells us a story about incomprehensible violence – the story of a young man who killed a girl, and had no feelings of remorse – and admitted that if they let him go, he’s do it again. We then flash to a police officer who is arrest Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) – although we don’t know his name yet – along with what appears to be an oxygen tank – whose purpose we don’t know. Chigruh goes willingly enough – but in the next scene, at the Sheriff’s office, he comes up behind the deputy who arrested him and strangles him using his cuffed hands. He then steals a police cruiser, pulls a man over, and it’s only then we get to see that oxygen tank – and its strange attachment - at work. Through it all, Chigruh barely says a word – he kills with ruthless efficiency and no emotion. Finally we meet Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) – a good ol’ boy out in the desert hunting, when he comes across a bloody scene – lots of dead men and guns, clearly a drug deal gone wrong. There is one man alive – but barely – but Moss leaves him and explores a little more – eventually finding another dead body – this one next to a suitcase with $2 million in it. He takes the money and runs – but makes a crucial mistake when he returns to the scene later that night, one presumes to kill the lone survivor if he was still alive, and gets spotted. Thus sets up the main action in the movie – Moss is on the run, from Chigruh who has been hired to get the money back, from the Mexican drug cartel who also want the money and from Ed Tom, who knows that if anyone else finds him first, Moss is a dead man.

Scene after scene in No Country for Old Men is perfectly constructed, and seems to be pulling us along to the moment when the three men will come together in a violent conflict. Llewelyn Moss is a typical Coen brothers protagonist – a normal guy, who gets in over his head, and tries to get himself out of it. But like many Coen characters, he has sinned – his sin being greed when he took the money – and the Coens are not ones to let their sinners go free – they make like them, but they still punish them. In a way, he’s like Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo, in that he brings his ultimate fate down on himself – and those around him. Except Moss is somewhat more innocent – he was naturally tempted by the money, and took the opportunity that presented itself to him. Brolin plays Moss as not altogether that bright, but a street smart and resourceful – a man who will do what it takes to survive. He lasts much longer out there, with Chigruh on his tail than anyone thinks he will. I’ve heard complaints about Chigruh, as played by Bardem, as being something akin to the Terminator – an unstoppable killing machine. To a certain extent, that is true. But Bardem’s performance is excellent – deserving of the Oscar he won for it. Chigruh is clearly a man without morals or normal human emotion – he often seems to be examining his prey like an animal predator before he kills it. His best scenes are dialogue driven – like his tense standoff with a friendly gas station attendant (played brilliantly by Gene Jones), who makes the mistake of being friendly to the wrong man. He’s also great when he faces down Woody Harrelson, as another hired killer, this one to track down Chigruh and near the end his scene with Carla Jean, Llewelyn’s wife. Here and in his final scene – where he interacts with two kids – he seems perplexed by the behavior of the people he’s talking to. Why won’t Carla Jean call the coin toss to save her own life? Why are these young boys willing to help him when there’s nothing in it for them? Bardem got all the awards for the film, but perhaps Tommy Lee Jones is even better as Ed Tom Bell – the most complex of the three characters (probably because he isn’t really involved in the chase – he’s always behind, too late, and seems resigned to this fact). He has been a lawman for years, has seen untold amounts of violence, but is now starting to see it in a different way. Has the world changed? A conversation late in the film with a former lawman, older than Ed Tom Bell, makes the point that the West – and America – has always been violent, has always had cruel men who kill without remorse – and that thinking otherwise is na├»ve, and even vain. Ed Tom is struggling with the violence he sees around him – the callous nature of it, and how he is supposed to stop people from killing each other when they do not seem to care. In the end, he makes the only sane decision he can – the one that proves the title of the movie.
No Country for Old Men has the appearance of a crime movie – and the Coens structure it as such for much of its running time, with scenes we expect to see – tense standoffs and chases, violent gunfights – but from the beginning, it’s also clear that this isn’t “just” a crime movie – if Ed Tom’s monologue at the beginning of the movie doesn’t clue you into that fact, than the ending of the film surely does. Audiences expect these three men to come together in violent conflict – but the Coens and McCarthy aren’t really interested in that. The Coens, daringly, follow McCarthy’s lead – leaving Moss’ fate off-screen. By the time we arrive – along with Ed Tom – we’re too late to see him as anything but a corpse. The Coens even take things a step farther than McCarthy did – leaving Carla Jean’s fate off-screen as well (it’s possible to read how her scene ends with Chigruh in two different ways – but I think we know what happened from the way Chigruh examines his boots). In the end, the Coens allow Chigruh to literally walk off, not unscathed, but free and clear to continue what he does. Ed Tom has no interest in pursuing him – he never really did, he was only interested in trying to save Moss, and when that’s too late, he simply leaves – retires, and waits for death at his kitchen table. I saw No Country for Old Men three times in theaters – once at TIFF, and twice more in its theatrical run – and all three times there were many people audibly saying “That’s it!” They want the resolution they expected – or at least something more conventionally definitive – but I think the ending of the movie is what elevates it from a great film into a masterpiece.

No Country for Old Men takes place in 1980 – but in reality it could take place really any time after WWII in America. It is a crime film in a way – a violent one at that – but more than that, it’s an examination of masculinity, violence, old age and death. While this may not be the most violent Best Picture winner ever – both Godfathers, The Silence of the Lambs or Braveheart may give it a run for its money – it is perhaps the darkest one ever to win, the one that offers no hope, no escape. To some that makes the film depressing – to others who want a tidier resolution, it makes the film disappointing. To me, it makes it one of the best films of the Coens career.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I like your blog. It's definitely one of the Coen Bros. best films. Chigurgh was a complete psychopath w/ no redeemable qualities. Javier Bardeem was so fantastic in that role.

    I will say one of things that surprised me most was how Llewllyn's death was so anti-climatic. That was a good decision.