Behold a pale horse

Jordan Canning ventures into The Coen Brothers’ nihilistic No Country For Old Men

Over the last twenty years, the Coen Brothers have firmly established themselves as visionaries, and they have created a canon of unforgettable films and iconic characters. Their films are indisputably Coen—which makes them auteurs in the finest sense. Their dedication to their particular stories, style, and tone is of a rare standard, and it would be irresponsible to review one of their films without first taking into account the work that came before.

The Coen Brothers have made a lot of films. In fact, No Country for Old Men makes it an even dozen that they have co-written/directed/produced.

But it’s been three years since The Ladykillers, and four since Intolerable Cruelty—two films which were panned as mediocre misfires in an otherwise astounding body of work.

So what did they do this time?

The brothers took a break, licked their wounds and asked each other, “okay bro, what are we doing here?”

No Country for Old Men, as a result, is an assured and masterful new highlight of the Coens’ career. Clearly, they’re well-rested, focused and newly-inspired after their break, because they’ve come back into the game swinging hard.

Reminiscent of Fargo and Blood Simple, No Country is a gleefully grim crime drama, delicately laced with deadly black humour.

Adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, the title refers to a world gone to pot—overrun by greed and senseless, soulless violence—no place for old men of a simpler and more honorable mien.

The story revolves around three men who navigate this nihilistic new world very differently, but who are inextricably connected. It’s set in Texas in 1980, at a time when drug trafficking across the Mexican border was becoming a serious and bloody problem. Unwittingly stepping into the middle of it comes Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who stumbles upon the carnage of a drug deal gone bad and makes off with more than 2 million in cash.

Moss is a good man, he loves his wife and takes responsibility for his actions. He’s just tempted by the get rich quick fix of the drug money. Who wouldn’t be?

Well, if he knew the wrath he’d be unleashing upon himself, he would have driven back to his trailer, curled up next to his wife, and forgotten the whole thing.

This wrath comes in the form of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem)—a pale-faced, dead-eyed, psycho killer with a page-boy haircut and a compressed-air cattle gun as a weapon. Chigurh is terrifying—almost alien—in his sheer lack of emotion towards human beings. He hunts Moss with ferocious purpose, indifferent to how many innocent people he has to slaughter along the way.

Reluctantly part of this world is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones)—a weary, aging lawman who’s seen a lion’s share of despicable human acts in his forty odd years on the job. Sheriff Bell is more of an observer, removed from the violence but still deeply affected by it. He follows Chigurh and Moss, but at a safe distance, never getting close enough to get his hands dirty.

In a world so bleak with violence, crime and greed, decency will be your downfall, especially if you’re not looking out for number one. Moss tries to get a slice, but he can’t escape his good nature. And good nature doesn’t stand a chance in the face of pure evil.

Chigurh is both the product and the propagator of all that is bad in the world—and he’s also the most apt to survive in it. He is skilled, resourceful and utterly cold-blooded. The Coens don’t glorify Chigurh—he’s not cool like Tony Soprano or even clever like Hannibal Lector, and you never (even secretly) root for him. He just plain scares the hell out of you, and his character should go down as one of the most frightening movie villains of all time.

If I had tackled this review the night I watched the film, I would have gushingly wrote about how taut the storytelling was. I’ll still gush a little: the writing is impeccable, the characters live and breathe, and the story is revealed through images and action, rather than through excessive dialogue. In one particular shot that stuck with me, Chigurh checks the bottom of his boots and we understand immediately that he’s just killed someone.

But a few nights after the fact, while discussing the film with a friend, we were both surprised to realize that—in fact—there were a couple of glaring problems with the plot. We never really understand how or why Chigurh is tangled up in all this, and there is some confusion over a certain tracking device. And Woody Harrelson’s smart-mouthed bounty hunter cameo is so unnecessary to the story that you wonder why he’s there in the first place.

But the funny thing is, I didn’t notice any of this at the time. I was so enthralled by the story that certain inconsistencies were accepted and ignored as I was pulled in further and deeper. And this, I believe, has everything to do with character. Brolin, Bardem and Jones give unforgettable performances that may pit them against each other come Oscar time.

When we believe in a character—when a character feels like he’s always just existed—we will give ourselves over and engage fully in their stories. And that’s something that the Coen Brothers have never forgotten.

No Country For Old Men is showing at the Avalon Mall’s Empire Studio 12. Call 722-5775 for times and prices.

One comment

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26 April 2012

  1. Mike · April 26, 2012

    This is a good review of a great movie, and I enjoyed reading it. But the “glaring problems” you note regarding the plot aren’t really all that problematic. Not to give too much away, but Chirugh’s role is, I think, explained when he first arrives at the scene of the massacre with those two unfortunate men.
    The tracking device seems like a standard thing to put in a case with $2 million in it, so isn’t really all that inconsistent. And Woody Harrelson’s appearance basically clears the issue up for the viewer, because without the scene between him and the Dallas businessmen, we’d never know anything at all about Chigurh’s motives, background or even his name (i.e. that he is, like Harrelson’s character, a bounty hunter hired to find the stolen money). Anyway, just thought I’d clear that up.