BEST FILMS OF THE DECADE #2
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
You ever watch a movie and thought the air was being sucked right out of you? At the same time you were afraid to look away for fear of missing something? I'm thinking here of Tommy Lee Jones staring off into space, unable to comprehend the evil he was witnessing, and this after being sheriff in West Texas since he was twenty-five. Earlier an old friend had told him "you can't stop what's comin'" and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell couldn't deny it. He'd been trailing this killer all over the place and having no success. Just couldn't predict what was ahead. Same as the rest of us as we watched the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men," adopted from the Cormic McCarthy's novel.
The Coens are at their genre-bending best.
Joel and Ethan Coen have been dealing in evil, mayhem, and every kind of iniquity for years, starting with "Blood Simple" in 1984, and continuing with "Miller's Crossing" and their masterpiece "Fargo," but never have we seen a more blackhearted, heinous individual than Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), an exterminator who's tracking down a guy who stumbled upon two million dollars of drug money.
We start out with a lone man in the vast unforgiving landscape of West Texas, a place for survivors only, which is just fine for Llewelyn Moss, a Vietnam vet who knows the terrain and figures he can handle anyone. He stumbles across dead bodies and a satchel full of money. He decides to keep it. Big mistake. Josh Brolin seems to have come right off a West Texas ranch. He's a poor candidate for the heroic western hero but compared to the man pursuing him he seems downright virtuous. He loves his wife, so we root for his survival.
Of course, anyone would appear normal once you see Anton Chigurh at work. As played by Javier Bardem, he's a heinous, nightmarish presence of biblical proportions who'd kill or spare someone for no apparent reason. He has no interest in comfort, sex, or human relations. We're never permitted access into Chigurh's mind. In most crime movies the criminal operates in a moral universe of his own. But nothing seems to drive this guy but killing. It's his vocation. Bardem wraps himself in an ascetic rigor that harkens back to the monks of the Middle Ages. This guy has arrived right out of hell.
I suspect critics will like this movie more than the general public. It's also mesmerizing storytelling. Every frame, every camera angle and lighting seems just right, giving us a sense of immediacy. The Coens like showing close-ups of feet and other body parts, then cutting to high or low angles that go against conventions, making a scene look fresh and simultaneously uneasy. They've been fortunate having available Roger Deakins, arguably the best cinematographer working today, to film their vision.
Tommy Lee Jones's Oscar worthy performance is not the typical lawman who's tracking down the killer throughout the movie. There's no shootout, no resolution with the hero riding off into the sunset. Sheriff Bell is really one of the old men the title alludes to, more a thinker than anything; he says what's on his mind which is more commentary on the sad state of things, not unlike a Greek chorus. He says things like "the crime you see now, it's even hard to take its measure." And that's at the beginning of the movie. Wait till he sees what's coming up. Sheriff Bell just can't fathom the violence around him. There will be no resolution with the hero riding off into the sunset. There is a walk-away at the end of the movie but not the one we expect.
Like "Fargo," this movie is a masterpiece, one of the best pictures in years. It is also mesmerizing storytelling.
Some thoughts on the ending
Certainly the West Texas landscape of "No Country" is no summer resort, but it is invigorating, at least to the moviegoer; we participate in the hunter/hunted narrative, the intricate cat-and-mouse game that we suspect will not end satisfactorily, at least not for the mouse. The cat, Anton Chigurh, does not think in terms of satisfaction or embarrassment--he is simply a force of nature, a cosmic paradigm, if you will. It is precisely this mindset that makes him, if not invulnerable, inevitable.
The movie ends with Sheriff Bell telling his wife about a dream he had. He's on horseback "goin through this pass in the mountains." His father rides past him "and when he rode past I seen he was carryin fire in a horn the way people used to do...that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. Out there up ahead."
Anton Chigurh is out there somewhere, but so is a man carrying a fire waiting for us.
Rated R for violence and some sexual talk.