Movie Review – Coen Brothers Succeed Again

No Country for Old Men 

Reviewed by Katherine Ramsland


            Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the biggest badass of them all? While Hannibal Lecter has long worn this crown, that may change after this stunning film.

It’s the close attention to detail in Coen brothers’ movies that makes viewing them such an exquisite experience. Whether it’s a shot to the jaw in Fargo, the seduction of three Ulyssean wanderers in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, or murder’s messy aftermath in Blood Simple, you can count on them to find the pulse of the most excruciating moment and then push your face in it. This film is no exception. It’s plenty brutal, but far from being some splatter-romp for teens, the profoundly meticulous tone makes even the most visceral violence into visual art. There’s a reason why the Oscar-winning Coens have drawn such a devoted following over the past two decades, and you’ll see it here.

            In this, their first literary adaptation, they do justice to Cormac McCarthy’s bleak novel of the same name, paying close attention to setting and character to compose a symphony of tight scenes and provocative moments. Throughout, they supply surprise and amusement, but also infuse the film with heart. Referring to the story, set at the Texas-Mexican border during 1980, Joel Coen said, “You kind of want to treat it how it feels to you it wants to be treated.”

            It opens when Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a local welder just eking out a living, comes across a collection of human corpses while hunting. Nearby is a bag full of money – the $2 million-plus proceeds from a drug deal gone bad. He decides to take it, starting a chain of events that invites carnage into this West Texas locale in a way never before seen (not even in a previous Coen brothers film).

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a third-generation law officer, suddenly finds himself up against a predator made of cold steel, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who’s come to reclaim the cash. Bell can’t even comprehend the enormity of the violence left in the wake of this killing machine, but despite being outmatched, he gives old-time profiling his best shot. The material demands a skilled performance to keep it from feeling trite, and Jones offers one of his best – and that’s saying something. His steady, familiar voice ties the tale together, injecting sanity into the chaos and preserving moral perspective. But the Coens are all about layering. Their films thrive on atmosphere every bit as much as plot.

Even the names of each character – and the hairstyle of one – bring something to the harrowing but perversely comedic experience. The landscape, too, plays a starring role, as the Minnesota winter did in Fargo. Against the rusting trucks, broken down motels, and miles of arid vistas, men must form their grit to keep their footing. But as tough as they may be, the violence that sweeps into this lonely place is a wakening force, a nihilistic wind that threatens its very soul.

            There’s a sense of Camus, the existential novelist, in this film: Man vs. the overwhelming presence of the Absurd – one that flips a coin to decide life and death and that carries a rather creative weapon of mass destruction. Chigurh cares nothing for who he hurts or kills. “He’s a personification of the world,” says Ethan Coen, who has a degree in philosophy, “which is an unforgiving and capricious place.” We’re all strangers in a barren landscape, this film implies, that could easily shake us off. “You can’t stop what’s coming,” as one character puts it, and anyone deluded enough to think he’s in control soon finds he isn’t – if he lives to realize it.

Still, one must choose something as an anchor, and Bell’s commitment to integrity in the face of such great odds is as good as anything. He recognizes just where we begin the downward slide (“It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners”), noting that once we tolerate the slightest breach of our moral fortress, “the end is pretty much in sight.” Moss, on the other hand, seems inclined toward situational ethics as a survival mechanism. Even so, he’s clever and resourceful, so moviegoers will root for both men as one stays a step ahead and one just behind the relentless Chigurh.

            With Oscars in mind, we generally see the best films at year’s end, and this one is a contender in several categories, including some not on anyone’s list. Chigurh may topple Lecter as the “ultimate badass,” while Jones will take any and all awards for Shrewdest Cowboy Philosopher. You’ll be grateful, when all is said and done, that through it all he kept his perspective.


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