Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Watching the Coen Brothers’ superbly crafted scenes of hunter and hunted in No Country for Old Men, I flashed on the one that got away. In the early part of this decade, Joel and Ethan Coen, Oscar-winning filmmakers of Fargo and Raising Arizona, sought to adapt James Dickey’s last novel To the White Sea for the screen. Brad Pitt expressed interest in playing the lead, an unspeaking, possibly sociopathic U.S. serviceman who becomes a fugitive in Japan after surviving the World War II firebombing of Tokyo. With little dialogue, lavish war scenes and unpromising commercial prospects, To the White Sea’s funding fell through and the Coens moved on to Intolerable Cruelty instead.
You can’t have an opinion of a film that was never made, but No Country for Old Men seems almost like the Coens’ consolation prize for To the White Sea. Cormac McCarthy’s highbrow thriller shares the other book’s intense violence, hostile landscapes and bleak vision of human affairs. No Country for Old Men marks a roaring return to form for the Coens. After the comedic missteps of Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, they downplay their trademark irony for some of the best work they’ve ever done, even though their grand statements prove unexpectedly slippery.
Initially, No Country for Old Men seems like just another “bag of money” yarn, like A Simple Plan, Shallow Grave and other crime flicks. While hunting on the Texas plains, Vietnam veteran Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles across the remains of a drug deal gone wrong and finds a suitcase carrying $2 million. Aware that he’s taking a near-suicidal risk despite the lack of living witnesses, Moss makes off with the cash.
Gangsters from both sides of the Rio Grande border join in the money hunt, but two pursuers are especially formidable. Hit man Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) favors a Moe Howard bowl haircut and a cattle stun gun that runs on compressed air as his favorite murder weapon. Without being remotely appealing, Bardem’s Chigurh makes a magnetic psychopath, willing to kill innocent bystanders based on the flip of a coin.
Equally canny but far more openhearted is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who rides to off-road crime scenes on horseback. Tough, but fond of easygoing humor like Mayberry’s Andy Taylor, Bell becomes increasingly shaken by the savagery of the new breed of criminals like Chigurh. In cinematic terms, it’s like Bell watches with dismay as the reliable, rigid ethical standards of the Western give way to the dog-eat-dog amorality of film noir.
Brolin turns out to be the real find of the movie. He shows a flair for deadpan comedy in the rare humorous scenes opposite Moss’ young wife (Kelly Macdonald) but spends most of the film in a state of watchful calculation, his eyes almost telepathically communicating his plans to the audience.
Most of No Country for Old Men is deliriously suspenseful, with cat-and-mouse games taking place in shabby hotels, motels and ghost towns. It’s like watching battles of wits between equally matched opponents, and we arrest our breathing as, for instance, Moss uses tent poles and wire hangers to retrieve the bag from under the noses of hired guns
The film also finds the Coen Brothers trading their sly wit for sincerity, the result being a script that remains faithful to a fault to McCarthy’s novel. The denouement relies on a series of anticlimaxes, and there’s something deflating about the film’s final scenes. McCarthy raises the ancient problem of human evil: Is it an inherent flaw of human nature, or the net result of random fate? McCarthy seems to conclude that it’s a generational thing. “Anytime you quit hearing ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’am,’ the end is pretty much in sight,” says Bell, and you suspect he’s only half-kidding.
It all seems too narrow, an inadequate vision of human affairs, despite some sharply observed final scenes that convey the solidarity of the elderly and the dim prospects of young people to recognize evil when they see it. Nevertheless, it’s still great to have such obvious movie fans as the Coen Brothers back in the fold, showing off their technical virtuosity and palpable love of the process. Certainly they’re crafty enough as artists to keep human insight from being the one thing that gets away in the future.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN ( * * * ½)
Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen •Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem • R., 122 min • At the Century Cinemas Del Monte Center, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas.