No Country for Old Men [R]
Once upon a time over coffee, my companion described a trick police use to identify a psychopath.
I don’t want to reveal too many details. Suffice to say, it presents a hypothetical murder premise and asks the lunatic to explain the motive. A psychopath sees the motive immediately, understands it perfectly. The normally-wired could never picture the shocking logic.
It’s with every bit of confidence that I say Anton Chigurh, the chilling killer of No Country for Old Men played by Javier Bardem, would fail the test. Nor do I think he would mind. Whereas our culture prefers to attach humanistic explanations to killers – abused child or the like – Chigurh offers no such comfort in our common humanity. When he smiles, you can see the muscles move like gears under the skin. When shot, he would laugh it off as a scratch. If he laughed. Which he doesn’t.
It’s true that Chigurh kills without mercy. But as importantly, he kills without ego. Without vanity. Without reason. Without fairness or thought to a morally justified outcome. This ultimate hit man acts with no rationale beyond his own lethal inevitability. Chigurh is the purest cinematic specter of death since the chess game in The Seventh Seal. Bardem might as well wear a black cloak and carry a scythe.
Thus in the Coen Brothers’ screen adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel, Chigurh rises out of perhaps the only appropriate setting, the untamed desert of West Texas, where dreams and agonies are swallowed by the endless sand, wind and indifference. Rain teases the horizon, but never wanders closer than a thankless distance. If a gun were fired in the middle of this wasteland, one could wonder philosophically if it would make a sound. Or would it disappear, in a haystack of deaf air and dust?
It’s the aftermath of an unheard gunfight upon which Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles while hunting – a mashed-up, flamed-out corral of pick-ups, drugs, and dead men. Even the dogs aren’t left as witnesses. Only the flies seem to know it's there.
Walking around with his rifle, Moss isn’t interested in the human toll. He’s after the money. He pries a briefcase of it from a dying man’s hand. What he doesn’t know is that he’s buying himself a world of trouble. It won’t be long before Chigurh, sent by some unseen force, picks up his scent.
Sending his wife to her mother’s home for safety, Moss bolts from the couple’s double-wide, trying to outrun the perfect killer. So begins a bloody cat-and-mouse chase across the desolate region, with Chigurh leaving a countless trail of dead in pursuit of the lost money.
Observing the folly from a safe distance is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), one of the folksy old-timers of the title. He has seen violence become more barbaric as he ages and wants nothing more of it. He no longer has much stomach for investigating; he’d rather sit around the café wondering what the world is coming to. Most cinematic sheriffs act like they’ve seen everything. Bell knows he hasn’t, and that’s exactly what he’s afraid of.
The echoes of earlier Coen Brothers’ films are apparent. A couple of examples: Chigurh violently rises out of the desert like Raising Arizona’s shoot-first minion from Hell, Leonard Smalls, the Lone Bike Rider of the Apocalypse. Meanwhile, the decency of the grandfatherly sheriff recalls Frances McDormand's pregnant crime fighter in Fargo.
Yet, it comes with a more serious tone. At one point the sheriff reads aloud an article describing a comically grisly crime. It's the type that might occupy a previous Coen film. But when the deputy laughs, he asks disapprovingly why he’s laughing. Bell wouldn’t find, you suspect, much humor in sticking a body in a woodchipper. You’re left to wonder if the Coens are reflecting on the cinematic violence of their earlier films.
The only lingering issue that I feel toward No Country – and it’s not a small one – is the difference in tone among the characters. Chigurh is almost completely figurative, at times even black comic, while Jones’ sheriff occupies a space of stone-sober realism and resignation. As the two men move closer to the same orb, it becomes a more noticeable problem, one that never quite resolves.
Aside from that, No Country for Old Men is a compelling beating-sun, open-space crime noir. It strays admirably from predictability, and its departures have meaning and bite. It’s a contemplation on the loss of decency in a violent society, and the vanity that we lose in the face of death.