FILM REVIEW: No Country for Old Men (2007)

No Country for Old Men (USA, 2007)
Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Kelly MacDonald

Having squandered their talents on both Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, the Coen Brothers mark a real return to form with No Country for Old Men. This faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel takes the existential darkness at the centre of his work and blends it with everything we love about the Coens: distinctive characters, surprising plot developments, black humour and striking visuals. It is easily their best film since Fargo, and an important piece of modern filmmaking.

As a Coen Brothers film, No Country for Old Men succeeds for two key reasons. The first is that disposes of all the overbearing quirkiness and kookiness which have lumbered their films (or at least their comedies) since The Big Lebowski. Watching The Ladykillers in particular, you get the impression that the Coens are more concerned with stuffing the screen full of irritatingly zany characters with outrageous personality traits than they are in constructing something more coherent and insightful.Make no mistake, the characters in No Country are interesting and unique, but they are also a million miles from quirky. Listening to the dialogue, you never get the sense of the Coens being too clever to amuse themselves. The characters are distinctive, with their own voices and verbal tics, but save for a few fleeting moments you are never irritated by them. And unlike There Will Be Blood, where all the other characters were dwarfed by the almighty Daniel Day-Lewis, here there is balance to the cast, with all three leads firing on all cylinders.

The second key reason for the film's success is that it represents a return to the stripped-down form of Blood Simple. Like their debut, No Country takes a relatively simple event (the theft of a bag of money) and uses it as a springboard towards darker events and deeper analysis. The Coens have always been fascinated by individuals' relationships with money, and most of their films centre around some sort of financial motivation: think of Paul Newman wanting control the company in The Hudsucker Proxy, or William H. Macy trying to use ransom money to pay off his debts in Fargo. The drug money in No Country is a similar device, although its existential implications are perhaps more complicated than in some of their other films.The central theme of both the novel and the film is that the world has changed; there is a new kind of evil which has emerged seemingly out of nowhere, and none of the conventional methods of dealing with crime seem to have any effect on it. The fact that there is almost no soundtrack hints at the film's existential nature -- the events which occur are very real, but hardwired into their reality are deep questions about meaning, purpose and reason.

The film is similar to The Dark Knight in the lack of any real back-story surrounding its villain; what we do know about them is conflicted, whether it's the Joker's multiple stories surrounding the origin of his scars or the confused police reports surrounding Anton Chigurh. But whereas the Joker actually takes gleeful pleasure in the chaos he causes, and hence has some kind of twisted reason for doing what he does, Chigurh has no such reaction. He has the mechanical air of the Terminator in his pursuit of Llewellyn Moss, coupled with the sepulchral omnipresence of Death in The Seventh Seal and the other-worldliness of David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth. He is cold and steadfast in his goal and methods, but is also willing to acknowledge the role of gamesmanship and chance.Chance plays a huge part in No Country, and is bound up with the existential or nihilistic morality of the piece. The central conceit of the story is that the great horrors which unfold are not happening for any kind of reason; they aren't a punishment from God, the foreshadowing of any kind of apocalypse or a result of social decay. Everything surrounding the chase, the murders and the attempted escape to Mexico all occurs because Moss just happened to be in a certain place in a certain time. The Coens are showing us that great evil is all around us, all the time. There is no way to truly escape it: you just have to pray you made the right choice.

The now-famous coin toss scene is a great illustration of this. When Chigurh asks the dopey attendant to call the toss of a coin, he speaks about him standing to win everything. We know from previous scenes what Chigurh is capable of, and hence we know that the attendant stands to lose everything as well. Much of the scene's dialogue is Chigurh playing with the attendant: the first half of the scene is a classic Coens trope of unpicking unnecessary small talk in order to question people's motivations. The comments about it being "just a coin", and the coin having made a journey over 22 years to be to this point, are partially facetious, but the latter also hints at the element of chance. Both the coin and Chigurh just happened to have turned up here, and both are now the balance in which his life hangs.For all our comparisons with The Dark Knight and other Coen works, the film which No County most closely resembles is The Hitcher. Javier Bardem is clearly drawing on Rutger Hauer's performance in that film, especially in the interior scenes where he emerges from the shadows with murder on his mind. There is the same sense of great horror lurking in the landscape, that sense of unending pursuit by a force we cannot hope to rationalise. And like The Hitcher, No Country has a lot of scenes in motels, those most temporary oases which quickly become anything but calm. The scene where Moss and Chigurh are on opposite sides of the same wall, trying to claw at the bag of money in the air vents, is one of the biggest nerve-shredders in recent memory.

One sad consequence of this chance-based thesis is that the film has less character development than we might expect. The fact that Tommy Lee Jones' character is always one step behind the violent events means that he gets a little marginalised, and hence some of his comments about lawlessness and evil remain sadly unelaborated. Unlike a lot of Coens features, there isn't much to laugh at either: there is some black humour throughout, amid irritating bits of goofiness with Moss' mother-in-law, but most of the time you find yourself wincing rather than laughing in the presence of all that blood.On the other hand, the fact that there is so little reason for these events give the film a cyclical feel, which somehow seems to make more sense. The fact that Chigurh is involved in a car accident soon after killing Moss is both ironic and a continuation of chance; it didn't happen because he deserved it, it happened because he was there at the wrong time. Likewise Sheriff Bell's speech about "carrying the fire" - a phrase also uttered in The Road - reflects the sense of perpetual despair in this world. Bell's dream centres around the hope that the world will become a better place through dedication to what is right. The fact that he awakes soon after, and can barely remember the first dream involving money, shows that he is both despairing of reality and reluctant to admit his own failings.Both as a standalone piece and as an adaptation, there can be little doubt that No Country for Old Men is a fine piece of work. It is a better film all round than There Will Be Blood, both in its characters and in the way its substance is channelled through them, and it is a more satisfying adaptation than The Road. There are several small problems with the finished product: some of the dialogue is difficult to understand, and there are little sections in which the sense of dread is compromised by concessions to obvious humour. But as a Western, and as a thesis on the nature of chance and evil, it deserves to be widely admired.

Rating: 4/5
Verdict: A very fine return to form


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