By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 24, 2007)
The bodies pile up faster than you can say Blood Simple in Joel and Ethan Coen’s new neo-noir No Country for Old Men, which represents a true return to classic form. The Coen’s screenplay (faithfully adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel) is rich in characterization and thankfully devoid of the self-consciously “quirky” tics that have left some of their efforts from the past several years teetering on the verge of self-parody.
The story is set circa 1980, among the sagebrush and desert heat of the Tex-Mex border, where the deer and the antelope play. One day, pickup-drivin’ good ol’ boy Llewelyn (Josh Brolin) is shootin’ at some food (the playful antelope) when he encounters a grievously wounded pit bull. The blood trail leads to discovery of the grisly aftermath of a shootout. The lone survivor is too dehydrated to talk, but a truck loaded with heroin and a satchel stuffed with 2 million speaks volumes about what went down. Llewelyn skedaddles back to the trailer to tell sweet young wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) to pack her bags and start thinking about early retirement.
“Someone” is always going to miss 2 million dollars, naturally, and the antelope hunter quickly becomes the hunted. Enter one of the most unique movie heavies in recent memory-Anton Chigurh (a frighteningly focused Javier Bardem) who has been hired to track down the money, with extreme prejudice. Chigurh is a textbook sociopath (he literally slaughters people like cattle, with a pneumatic prod); but he does appear to live by a code (of sorts). It’s not unlike the same kind of twisted code that drives Lee Van Cleef’s heartless “Angel Eyes” character in The Good, the Bad & the Ugly to always see his contracts through to the end…regardless of any “collateral damage” that may ensue.
In fact, the Coens do seem to be channeling Sergio Leone all throughout No Country For Old Men. If Chigurh is the “bad” (the “Angel Eyes” of the story) and Llewelyn is the “ugly” (like “Tuco”, he’s a smarter-than-he-looks oaf who has a native talent for crafty opportunism) then Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is the “good”, and the conscience of the story (he’s the only player in the chase who doesn’t have a self-serving agenda and occasionally displays genuine compassion toward the suffering of others).
He’s an old-school, Gary Cooper-ish lawman who (you guessed it) comes from a long line of lawmen. Jones has become the go-to actor for principled characters with a “lived in” look, and, true to form, the sheriff’s face is a craggy, world-weary road map of someone who has been rode hard and put up wet; reluctantly borne witness to every inhumanity man is capable of, and is counting down the days to his looming retirement (‘cos it’s becoming no country for old men…).
The actors are uniformly excellent. Bardem’s portrayal of Chigurh is very understated, but still quite menacing, made all the more ultra-creepy by his benign Peter Tork haircut. His character is a man of few words; when he does engage in conversation, it is with the detached, feigned interest of a psychiatrist who is wishing his patient would shut up so he can get to the golf course. Jones is solid throughout, and Brolin excels here as well. Woody Harrelson gives excellent support as another bounty hunter thrown into the mix.
With the source novel’s tailor-made twists and turns, this is a slam-dunk adaptation for the Coens, and they gleefully take the ball and run with it. The cinematography is expertly handled by Roger Deakins, who has been the brothers’ DP of choice since Barton Fink. While there are signature Coen camera shots (the “front bumper cam” eating up the asphalt, characters whizzing past “now entering…” or ”now leaving…” highway signs), they are used judiciously and serve the narrative well. As per usual, it’s the Hitchcockian attention to little details (use of ambient sound, POV perspectives and an ability to milk suspense from seemingly mundane scenarios) that marks this as a “Coen brothers film”.