THERE ARE NO CLEAN GETAWAYS.
When I started reading Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”, it took a while before I was hooked but then I was taken aback by the writer’s way of describing the desolate, bleak future. In this film, which is based on one of McCarthy’s books, cinematographer Roger Deakins captures the stark beauty of a wild and vast land about to change. It is indeed the cinematic equivalence of McCarthy’s prose. Thrilling and well acted, many viewers were nevertheless disappointed in the ingredients that define No Country for Old Men as a McCarthy story.
Corpses, heroin and cash
The year is 1980 and the place is Texas. An unemployed Vietnam War veteran, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), comes across a grisly scene in the middle of the desert. Several people lie there dead after a shootout; there’s also a big stack of heroin and cash. Moss takes the money and leaves but makes the mistake of coming back to the scene in the middle of the night. He runs into a group of drug-runners and narrowly escapes death, but thanks to his car the bad guys are now able to identify him. Thankfully, Moss is a bright and resourceful man who quickly hides away his girlfriend and goes on the lam, meticulously preparing for the eventuality that someone could track him down. They do. A psychopathic hired gun named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) who has a habit of using a captive bolt pistol to kill people as well as open locks is on Moss’s trail; the war veteran doesn’t realize that a transmitter is hidden inside the bag of money he found in the desert.
Meanwhile, sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is beginning to figure out what is going on and tries to convince Moss’s girlfriend to tell him where he’s hiding. The sheriff hates to see what has happened to Texas lately, but he knows there will be more blood.
Bloody, violent and compelling
The movie is part thriller, part meditation on a specific era that McCarthy has chosen as critical. Chigurh’s hunt for Moss is eerie in the way that he seems unstoppable; this killer has no mercy whatsoever. Moss is no easy victim either; he knows how to defend himself and avoid the enemy. Their battle is bloody, violent and compelling. The Coen brothers have never made a movie this tense, but they sure have a knack for it.
A convincing performance by Brolin, and Bardem is unforgettable; sporting a very strange hairdo and eyes that stare straight through you, his performance is akin to that of Anthony Hopkins’s in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Woody Harrelson has a brief but amusing supporting part and Jones is excellent as the sheriff; professional, earnest and weary, he becomes the symbol of the film’s hotly debated other half. The first scene has him contemplating how things have changed since he was a kid and the last scene has him telling his wife about a dream he had last night. It’s an abrupt ending, and many hated it, but I believe too many in the audience were too enthralled by the exciting battle between Chigurh and Moss to fully appreciate the underlying themes.
This really is a somewhat conservative film about a time and place about to change in 1980 – and fast. Many of those changes were indeed negative, but open-minded viewers will also find reason to disagree with the film’s old-timers who complain freely about everything new. This rumination lifts what would otherwise be perhaps merely an entertaining thriller far out of the ordinary.
In some ways, this Coen enterprise is similar to their Fargo (1996), especially in the depiction of the police. Some fans will object to its mournful tone, but this stands as one of the brothers’ most impressive features.
No Country for Old Men 2007-U.S. 122 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Scott Rudin. Written and directed by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen. Novel: Cormac McCarthy. Cinematography: Roger Deakins. Editing: Roderick Jaynes. Cast: Tommy Lee Jones (Ed Tom Bell), Javier Bardem (Anton Chigurh), Josh Brolin (Llewelyn Moss), Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, Garret Dillahunt.
Trivia: Editor “Roderick Jaynes” is actually the Coen brothers. Heath Ledger was allegedly considered for the part of Llewelyn.
Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Bardem), Adapted Screenplay. BAFTA: Best Director, Supporting Actor (Bardem), Cinematography. Golden Globes: Best Supporting Actor (Bardem), Screenplay.
Last word: “The look [on Bardem], actually the feeling of the wardrobe and the haircut came from, the art department does a lot of research, mainly photo research, because it’s a period thing, although a recent period, it’s 1980 Texas border area. So they don’t just kind of make it up from scratch. They look at archive pictures of the time and place. And the wardrobe department had found this picture of a guy at a bar in West Texas in 1979 and it was that alarming haircut and actually that kind of wardrobe as well. And we looked at it and thought, well, he looks like a sociopath. And Javier really enjoyed it as well.” (Ethan Coen, Collider)