Critical heralding of a ‘return to form’ of a once-favoured director commonly derives from a sense of relief, as much as it is of the merit of the film itself. So it is no surprise that, after the dismal run of form which included such nadirs as Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, the new film from messrs Coen and Coen has been universally acclaimed as such. But bearing all the hallmarks of their classic work, No Country For Old Men is a thoroughly enjoyable black comedy-cum-thriller which is perfectly pitched, paced and executed, and features one of the most memorably psychotic screen villains in quite some time, and can quite rightly be claimed to put brothers Ethan and Joel back at the top of modern American filmmaking.
Returning to the Texas of Blood Simple, the story is simple enough: Llewelyn Moss, on a hunt, stumbles across a drug deal gone very wrong, locates a satchel filled with money and safely makes off with it. In the meantime, Anton Chigurh, a hitman, is shown violently escaping custody, conducting a series of random killings, before being hired to locate the missing money. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, upon the discovery of the increasing number of casualties, then finds himself in charge of trying to stop the killings and put an end to what is happening.
The bare bones of the plot appear to show a fairly familiar, linear storyline; Moss will run, Chigurgh will follow, with Bell bringing up the rear behind both of them. But knowing this is a Coen brothers film makes us expect for genre conventions to be messed with and overturned somewhat. The wild Texan setting gives us a clue; the film looks like it will play out like a neo-Western, with Good, Bad and most certainly Ugly elements intermingling in a Sergio Leone fashion. There is also hints of the bleak nihilism of Peckinpah at play here.
But much like The Big Lebowski disassembled, at the same time as playing homage to, the noir of Raymond Chandler’s universe, in particular The Big Sleep, here the Coens take our expectations and slant them on their sides. Just as Jeffrey Lebowski bumbled his way around LA never seemingly in control of his own fate, here too the protagonist Moss stumbles from place to place, motel to motel, knowing he must do something but never sure exactly what that something should be. Sheriff Moss, the ageing, jaded sheriff seen in a thousand Westerns, is similarly unheroic, preferring sitting in cafes reading the local newspaper over a coffee to the serious business of law enforcement. The key player in moving the action along is thus Shigurh, the hitman, yet even his actions seem haphazard. He is, for the most part, the only character in control of his own destiny, yet on several occasions he seems content to allow lady luck to decide the outcome of a situation, a man’s life decided by the toss of a coin. Fate, and sheer luck, is one of the key themes in the film – can the idea of predestination be possible in a world so seemingly arbitrary as this?
Sticking close to the original Cormac McCarthy novel somewhat restricts some of the Coens’ usual philandering, but given recent form this seems to have been a benificial reining in. There is their trademark cast of oddball cameos, including a succession of memorably deadpan receptionists, and a US border guard who takes his job a little too seriously. For all the onscreen violence, their signature blackly comedic tone is happily present, making it difficult to establish exactly when to laugh and when not to; at the screening I went to, smatters of chuckled waved across the auditorium at different times, before people became aware that not everyone else was laughing with them. Such are classic Coens films.
The leads are well cast; Josh Brolin as the confused but determined Moss, while surely only Tommy Lee Jones could have possibly played the weary Sheriff Bell. And then there is Javier Bardem’s Anton Shigurh. Gone is the handsome star of the likes of Jamón, Jamón and Carne trémula, gone is the pathos of his performance in Mar Adentro, his finest work so far. Instead we have a psychopath that even Fargo‘s Peter Stormare would be shit-scared of. Much has been made of his haircut, but Bardem’s physical transformation is a complete one, down to his killer stare and walk. What a revelation from this actor whose increasing range consistently suprises.
Regular Coens cinematographer Rogers Deakins, Oscar nominated for a sixth time here, once again comes up trumps with his magnificent eye for setting; while his work on Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was grand and spectacular, here there is the sense of the epic but also constrasted with the mundane claustraphobia of the endless succession of cheap, poky motels which populate the country. One other interesting feature was the almost entire absence of a musical score; Carter Burwell, composer for all of the Coens’ films so far, is perhaps best remembered for his haunting score for Fargo, one of the key aesthetic aspects of that film, but here his contributions are barely audible, let alone memorable. Yet it is remarkable how this absence is not noticeable to the viewer on first watch.
The film functions perfectly well as a thriller, a black comedy, a neo-western and possibly whatever else one wished to read into it. But the title gives more than a clue to the main theme; that 1980s Texas is indeed becoming no country for old men, that times are changing and new manifestations of violence and evil are emerging. Shigurh’s trademark weapon, a compressed air canister, seems strangely out of place in the western setting, and Moss never seems to be able to fathom out just what has caused the damage that it has. He is a relic, from another time to that of Shigurh and heroin deals and kids with green hair walking down the street. The film closes on a reflective note, one which seems somewhat detatched from the rest of this dark, richly comic fable, but one which seems to end it all rather fittingly.