After a string of disappointing projects (The Man Who Wasn’t There, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers) Joel and Ethan Coen have hit cinematic paydirt with Cormac McCarthy’s 2003 western crime novel No Country for Old Men. Adapted, directed and edited by the Coens, No Country was widely accepted among critics at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival as worthy of the Palme d’ Or.
Vapors of Hitchcock, Cronenberg and Tarantino permeate a dusky ‘80s era Texas-Mexico borderland where retiring hardscrabble Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) hunts bizarro serial killer Anton “Chigurh” (Javier Bardem) who is busy chasing married Army vet Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin). The three characters form a cross-generational chain of variously disaffected men spiraling down a whirlpool of blood and cash.
Chigurh, in an unflattering Dutch Boy haircut, is temporarily arrested before he strangles the officer with his handcuffs and continues on his way, leaving a trail of corpses behind. The human killing machine embodies a black heart of the borderlands’ drug trade that has infected large swaths of Texas and New Mexico. Javier Bardem thoughtfully creates the most daunting illegal immigrant any Republican dreamed about. And the Coen brothers treat the threat with deadpan irony.
While out hunting, Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) has the apparent good fortune of coming upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong in a remote desert area. Amid bloodied bodies, spent rifles and five shot-up trucks, Llewelyn finds $2.4 million in cash and a motherlode of heroin. Hiding the suitcase of cash at home momentarily brightens Llewelyn’s dream of providing a good life for his loving wife Carla Jean Moss (Kelly Macdonald), but his decision to take water back to a dying man at the scene proves a step too far.
Or did Llewelyn return for the heroin? Chigurh waits at the scene, and Llewelyn becomes his running target, as well as a person of interest for Sheriff Bell, who correctly reads the tea leaves of the crime scene the next day.
There’s an impression here that just as they achieved with Fargo, the Coen brothers have perfected a dry-wit version of their self-blended modern noir cocktail. Whole stretches of sequences go by with hardly a word spoken or a note of music, and yet the pacing hits at a breakneck speed.
The title “No Country for Old Men” comes from Sheriff Bell, an honest Texan broken-hearted over the drug and border crossing violence that’s consumed his home. Bell dreams of spending his remaining days with his patient wife Loretta (Tess Harper), but too much has changed. The new American West is now fueled by greed and a thirst for retribution, if not preemptive slaughter.
Cormac McCarthy’s source material insinuates symbolic ideas about an American society where western life has turned far more violent than the blood-soaked days of the Old West. Justice and honor are foreign words, unrelated to modern survival and accumulation of wealth.
And yet, there is a sense of hope in the face of such brutal truths that cycles across the movie. You can’t always get what you want, and you can’t always keep what you have. MTW