Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
By Roderick Heath
A few years back, Billy Bob Thornton adapted Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses for the screen. The film was mutilated from its original four-hour cut and entirely dismissed by critics and audiences. I liked it. It had a rugged poetry. I liked it much more than this film. No Country for Old Men has gained almost universal raves. C’est la vie.
No Country for Old Men tells of Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a Vietnam veteran living in a trailer in West Texas with his young wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald). He’s out hunting one day when he discovers the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad. Bodies litter the landscape, one Mexican man with a hole in his gut groans for water, and Llewellyn finds $2 million in a suitcase. He takes the money, but in the middle of the night decides to go help the wounded man. When he gets there, the man is dead, and some of his accomplices arrive and chase Llewellyn, who barely escapes. He returns home, tells Carla to pack off to her mother’s house in Odessa, before proceeding south by himself to await his pursuers. He figures on mere human adversaries. What he gets instead is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a hulking, soulless psychopath who’s sort of lump of walking Dostoyevskian anxiety about what the world without god, dominated instead by chance and nature, will look like. Llewellyn and Anton match wits as the dead-eyed monster of existentialism pursues the stoic warrior of American ambition.
A Hitchcockian story in Peckinpah country, the film has been paced and constructed by the Coens as a thriller, but it’s not a thriller. Chigurh is, in essence, an Angel of Death, though he’s certifiably “real” in that he has a job, identity, even a disgruntled boss. A Dallas businessman (Stephen Root) who seems to be running the drug deals, has sent Chigurh out, and, realising he’s a loose cannon, assigns another operative, Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), to intervene. Chigurh likes to subject random people to coin-toss choices that will determine whether he kills them or not. McCarthy’s thesis is that often crime has no motivation, that an anonymous, senseless type of evil infests modern life, and the representative of old-timey values, local sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), bemoans this process and proves impotent to hold off this dissolution into moral turpitude.
I could argue with McCarthy’s point, but we’ll take it at face value for the moment. McCarthy is an exceptionally cagey writer, who, like Hemingway, perceives humans more as phenomena of nature than as individuals. His style is well pitched to evoke the symbolism inherent in his tales. McCarthy, fundamentally, is a poet. The Coens, on the other hand, approach this material with a procedural eye. The sequences of Chigurh’s hunt are riveting cinema, but much ado about nothing; there’s a long sequence where Llewellyn hides the money and then extracts it, trying to beat the clock on Chigurh’s arrival that’s breathtaking filmmaking, but ridiculously clumsy activity. But the Coens find no poetic discourse in the material. They have been poetic, mostly in early films; the wind-driven hat of Miller’s Crossing (1990) and the big clock in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) are some of the most affecting images in modern film. But the template for No Country is Fargo (1996), their last cool, blackly comic crime drama and their most overrated film. When they make serious films, they become watchmakers; the cogs are brilliant and shiny, but they do not sing. They include the usual absurdist epigrams and endless supply of caricatured American types to leaven the brutality, and elide convention by having the real climaxes occur off-screen. For example, Bell and Carla come across Llewellyn dead, brought down not by Chigurh but by some of the Mexican drug dealers, gunned down along with hapless bystanders in an El Paso motel.
Yeah, yeah, I get how wonderfully clever and unclichéd it is to set up a chase thriller and then throw it out the window. You know what? Go take a running jump, Joel, Ethan. No Country for Old Men is a hollow piece of work. The Coens cannot reveal much about their characters to make a statement about the tragedy of death carry weight. We have hints of motivation, but Llewellyn, Bell, and Anton are all robbed of a complex inner life that might make this drama build to tragedy. We’re supposed to be shocked and haunted by the epigrammatic finale where Anton fulfils a threat to Llewellyn, even though he’s dead, by tracking down and executing his wife, but she’s such a pasty character, there’s not much impact there either, even though the wonderful Macdonald does her best to imbue the part with a blowsy appeal. But my irritation with No Country began before it dynamited its own story. The story is thin, and after the central gun fight between Anton and Llewellyn, illogic begins to take a grip. The characters start acting in odd, even stupid ways, and all of the supporting characters were the usual Coen Bros cut-outs.
Anton’s evil is a cipher, a gimmick, an obvious way of summarizing a theme. Wells describes Anton as being driven by a kind of code, an honour system of death, which is as big a load of claptrap as I’ve ever heard. Anton’s actions are occasionally governed by some sort of philosophy of chance, but why he then shoots his own employers and decides to go after the money for himself is entirely opaque. Wait—he’s a self-serving renegade but also a kind of moral force? There seems to be a suggestion Chigurh is punishing the sinners of the world for their sins and the innocents for their blind innocence, and suggests he himself is only alive and in any one spot, performing any one action, through the constant turns of chance.
There’s a deep confusion in this philosophy. Is it about a fracturing, godless universe where all fate is cruel and inevitable, or is it about the notion that what goes around comes around? Either way, Chigurh’s such a blank, bleak creature that the audience laps up his evil appeal; he’s so precise, without caution, mercy, or similarity to any living human, that he’s an almost comforting villain. No scene in No Country is as tense and disquieting a contemplation of psychopathy as the central pas de deux of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a film that demanded infinitely more complex assignations of sympathy.
Llewellyn, too, is an odd beast of a hero. His decision to take water to the dying man, late as it is, signals him as a man of conscience, and he defies Chigurh with Charles Bronson-esque pith, refusing—as Carla does later—to accept Chigurh’s predestination. There is a sense, not developed, that Llewellyn and Chigurh are two sides of the same coin, both skilled, ruthless, cunning, and determined. Llewellyn is casually dispatched, and Chigurh left to go his merry way. What a bust! Why doesn’t Anton kill Bell when Bell almost finds him in Moss’s motel room? Does Chigurh “respect” the lawman? Does this have something to do with the dream Bell recounts at the end, where he’s led through the darkness by a fire lit by an unseen figure—having been passed by the bad angel, a good angel promises a peaceful end for the righteous man? What is righteousness? Is Llewellyn’s taking of the money an act that damns him no matter what he does?
To be sure there’s a political element in all this. Llewellyn wants to save himself and his wife from a life of living in a trailer park after having been used and thrown away by his country; the drug deals are actually run by businessmen who use poor people and psychos to enforce their actions. Not exactly new themes, though. The car crash that almost claims Anton at the end seems to hint at some divine justice, but why leave him with a broken arm? Why was the scene there at all? Some kids are kind to Anton, and he’s kind to them back. Is he then an agent of karmic balance? Or just a bogeyman?
I can’t fault the cast or the technical aspects. Josh Brolin, The Goonies a long way behind him now, provides a sturdy Llewellyn, reminiscent of Kris Kristofferson in look and cadences, and Jones’ aging mug evokes a worn-out soul effortlessly. Bardem has gained the most plaudits as Chigurh, which is fair enough; his droll deliveries, physical command, and occasional vivid flourishes (his eyes grow wide and ecstatic in strangling a policeman) provide the film’s most hypnotic moments. But frankly, it’s a piddling role for Bardem, one of the finest actors alive, compared to his multilayered protagonists in films like Live Flesh (1997) and The Dancer Upstairs (2002). The filmmaking is imbued with the brother’s own laser-edge editing and brilliant photography by Roger Deakins. And the film, deeply flawed as it is once the visceral impact fades, represents a return to challenging form for the Coens after several anorexic comedies.
The trouble is, the Coens just can’t do dread. Bergman could do dread. David Lynch can do it. The Coens are comedians, not tragedians. Their approach to life and death on the cinema screen is capricious. No Country is almost a remake of Raising Arizona, played for thrills rather than laughs; Anton is the straight-faced equivalent of the Lone Rider of the Apocalypse, and about as believable. Unless they’re directly copying a model (like The Hudsucker Proxy imitates Capra), the Coens rarely built a truly compelling narrative. They used to make up for this with shows of energy and invention. They’re admirable in their attempts to always take the road less travelled, but I see few signs of them being capable of making a film that’s more than a generic deconstruction. Most of their films, for all the wit, are little more than ramshackle collusions of blackout sketches, improperly finished and lacking substance, with The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou? representing their most frustrating efforts.
Sam Peckinpah used to make movies like this as almost second nature, reinforcing his own harsh worldview with a vivid, gorged sense of life as it is lived and as it is given up. No Country reads like a combination of Straw Dogs and The Getaway with The Wild Bunch’s fuck-it-all philosophy. Compared with them, No Country is schematic and trite. It’s easy to accept the ending because it doesn’t require you to feel for anything of substance being destroyed. Llewellyn and Carla die off-screen and there’s no suffering, no deep fear or agony, no urgency. Late in the film, Bell converses with a wheelchair-bound ex-colleague, who delivers the film’s signature line: “You can’t stop what’s coming.” That would be death, of course. Yet the film has failed to supply the feeling to accompany the sentiment. Fate has been reduced to its message. Boiled right down: shit happens.