Sacrilegious as this may seem, I’ve never been a fan of the Coen brothers. In part I’m sure this is due to only having seen certain films in their oeuvre, but having suffered through the unbearable screwball comedy of Raising Arizona and the insufferable Barton Fink I’d pretty much given up on them by the time The Big Lebowski hit the screens (‘You’ve never seen The Big Lebowski?’ No, I have never seen The Big Lebowski. ‘Officer, the handcuffs’.) I’ve since been tempted back into the cinema for The Man Who Wasn’t There (fantastically dull. Really.), rented Fargo (good, but what movie with Steve Buscemi’s hang-dog face isn’t?) and watched Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? on telly (I liked the songs) and my opinion has changed little. The Coen Brothers are competent filmmakers with a tragic disposition towards wackiness and pastiche that mars their every work, something akin to seeing Wes Anderson in double. I tell you this because there’s a tendency amongst film critics to praise the Coen Brothers’ work to high heaven regardless of its worth, and I want you to know that when I say their new film is very, very good, you can trust me.
No Country for Old Men is based upon Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel, the brothers’ first straight book adaptation, and by all accounts the film adheres fairly strictly to the text. This leads to a peculiar moment later in the film when a central character dies, but more of that later. Until that point, from the opening credits and Tommy Lee Jones’ portentous voice-over as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, this is a tight, taut exercise in filmmaking, a relentlessly tense thriller that works on a purely visceral level but also deals in higher ideas of good and evil. Its backdrop is the imposing landscape of West Texas, sparse and arid, and it’s out here that Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles across the gory aftermath of a drugs deal gone wrong. Among the dead and the dying Moss finds a briefcase stuffed full of banknotes and flees the scene.
By now we’ve been introduced to the murderous, enigmatic presence of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) who, despite a haircut that makes him look like a member of an especially groovy sixties garage band and a curious instrument of death constructed from a pressurized gas canister, has already killed twice in scenes of such extreme violence and cold-bloodedness that we are developing a sense of extreme foreboding over Moss’ decision to take the money. When Moss returns to the scene of the massacre he narrowly escapes being caught by the Mexicans and, packing his wife on a bus to her mother, goes on the run with the briefcase, with Chigurh in close pursuit. It’s hard to describe the degree of menace Bardem brings to this role. There are moments of what could be described as humour in his interactions with those he meets along the way, but they’re shot through with such terror and unease that you’re gripping your seat even while you’re laughing.
Chigurh seems to represent relentless, unstoppable evil; as unforgiving and harsh as the Texas countryside; as inexorable as the general decline in standards that the Sheriff complains bitterly about. There comes a point where we’re unsure if he’s a man or some kind of dark, avenging spirit. Part of what is disquieting about Chigurh is that he appears to live by some strict moral code, however twisted, and that his actions are in some way governed by this, as if he’s obliged to track down Moss not as a job, but in order to make him pay for his greed. The appearance of Woody Harrelson as Moss’ guardian cowboy angel, pleading with him to return the money, only adds to this impression, as do the Sheriff’s lugubrious pronouncements on the inevitable.
Approximately three-quarters of the way through the film one of the major characters dies off-screen, removing the possibility of the dramatic showdown that is high in the audience’s expectations. From this point onwards not everything that occurs is immediately clear and we lose the logic that has, until then, underpinned the narrative. The instant gratification of the obvious is snatched away from us and we’re left blindly searching for meaning in the void. Given my low opinion of the Coen brothers it was at this point I feared that No Country for Old Men had fallen foul of their contrived methods but, firstly, the brothers are doing nothing more than being true to the original text and, secondly, while what may work in print isn’t always what works in film, there is something pleasing in leaving a movie theatre still digesting what you have just seen on the screen. In this way the Coens score big over that other recent film set in the wide expanses of America, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which saw fit to telegraph every last emotion and plot detail by way of an intrusive voice-over, and instead invites comparison with that master of the unexplained, David Lynch.