Written and Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
Llewelyn Moss: Can’t help but compare yourself to the ol’ timers. Can’t help but wonder how’d they do in these times.
The Coen brothers have been making movies for over 20 years now. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is their twelfth feature together. While they were once considered princely collaborators held at the highest esteem by film enthusiasts the world over, they have recently been the victims of their own identity crisis. Caught between their signature exploration of all things quirky and abnormal found in the parts of America thought to be forgotten and the demanding pressures of delivering bankable Hollywood fare, the Coen’s finished by delivering sub-par work that tarnished their lustrous reputation. The film enthusiasts thought they might have lost great talents to Hollywood while Hollywood wasn’t even sure they wanted them. What were these "aging" filmmakers to do? They could have polished off another Tom Hanks picture and crossed their fingers. They could have appealed to their fans and told another tale of the idiosyncrasies of those living in the middle of nowhere. They could have tried appeasing both parties by attempting THE BIG LEBOWSKI 2. Instead, they did none of these things. No, instead, the Coen brothers crafted a film that is unlike any film they have ever made and is also perhaps the best film they’ve ever made.
Translating Cormac McCarthy’s novel about the relationship between the hunter and the hunted to the screen may be smoothest decision these boys have made for years. Not only does it allow for the brothers to explore the grim sides of characters consumed by money and an unnerving peace derived from killing, but NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN also leaves the door open for an interpretive commentary on the Coen’s career itself. Allow me to explain by painting a picture from the film. Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) aims his rifle at an unsuspecting animal grazing alongside the herd. He is right now in charge, in control, the hunter. He fires and misses, thus beginning his steady descent into ruin. He moves toward the spot where his prey once stood only to find the site of a drug deal massacre. Here, he innocently stumbles upon an enormous amount of money. He picks it up and goes without realizing the hell that is about to be brought upon him. He inadvertently becomes the hunted. He spends the remainder of the film calculating and executing different attempts to regain the superior position he once held. The comparisons are subtle and come about naturally rather than existing as the initial basis for the film to grow out of, reinforcing their genuine nature. I could explain my logic behind this analogy but that would be very un-Coen like.
Another consistency throughout the Coen Brothers’ careers is the elevated caliber of talent they attract to their diverse projects. With their writing at top of its game, performances by Brolin, Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones are pushed to the heights of their potential. Moss is a quiet man, focused and constantly thinking about what his next play will be. He has no time for ego, only function, and though most of his motivation is to avoid drawing attention to himself, Brolin’s interpretation cannot help but capture our notice. For the second time this year (in conjunction with his slimy crooked cop turn in AMERICAN GANGSTER), Brolin reinvigorates his skills by inhabiting Moss fully as an instinctual and reactionary being. While Jones is also impressive as a police officer resigned to following the action without any possibility of curbing the outcome, it is Bardem’s performance as Anton Chigurh that will leave audiences with a haunting chill after experiencing it. His portrayal of a psychopathic hunter is both disturbing and riveting. This is a man who enjoys torturing his victims mentally by asking them questions meant to expose the inconsistencies in the way they live their lives before ushering them out of this world. He abides by some form of ethical code that only makes sense in his own mind and fully justifies his killings. His adherence to this code is what sends him to an internal state of ecstasy as he chokes a man and stares intently at the ceiling. The hunter is always frightening but Bardem is worse; he’s unsettling.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is entirely disconcerting but is somehow still a tranquil experience. There is a normality amidst the unrest that thrives in the plain, natural manner in which the story unfolds. The chase is constantly surprising without ever seeming forced. Each move made makes perfect sense but is not seen coming. On this level, even their formal execution of this film speaks to the trajectory of their career. Who knew that leaving quirk behind for harrowing humour and a story that serves itself instead of as a platform for character would invigorate the Coen’s method and assert their place as two of the greatest American filmmakers operating in a country thought not to have any place for the them? I like to think they did. In doing so, they have also made a movie for a sharp adult audience in a country bent on catering to all things youthful and disposable.