Joel and Ethan Coen’s new film, “No Country for Old Men,” opens upon scene after scene of the Texas plains — vast, empty, and uncompromising — as the voice of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) muses as to the cruel and absurd realities of life on this planet. In all his fatigue and desperation, Bell might trick Lawrentians into thinking that he too is in the throes of 10th week.That is, until we find that Bell is clinging to the trail of a killer whose path of violence in pursuit of $2 million redefines ruthlessness.
Given the voluminous praise doled out by critics far and wide for the Coen brothers’ new film, tightly adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy, I can’t help but feel a bit shameful to offer more of the same.
The truth is, however, that “No Country” is a fantastic film — a work of gripping story, rich characters, and immaculate technique that stands to be a near-perfect execution of a modern Western.
“No Country for Old Men” focuses largely on the third party in this game of cat and mouse — a working class Texan by the name of Lewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin). While on a weekend antelope hunt, Moss happens across the satchel full of money amidst a mass of victims of a heated drug battle.
Taking the bag, it is not long before Moss catches the attention of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the psychopathic killer determined to retrieve the cash.
To call Chigurh “determined,” however, appears to be an understatement for the sort of incessant drive at the heart of his behavior.
Chigurh bases his actions on objective principles only he can understand –principles, for instance, that make it acceptable to plug somebody in the head with a cattle gun to pick up a new set of wheels.
Chigurh exhibits such cold confidence regarding the infallibility of these principles that one gets the impression that it is not a question of if something will occur, but when he wills it to occur. Save for the cattle gun, he is not unlike a fellow staple of the Texas plains, Chuck Norris.
Despite first-rate performances by Jones and Brolin, Bardem’s Chigurh dominates every scene, so much so that at times the film feels like a cruel existential experiment — a particularly exciting and riveting one, I must stress — conducted by this heartless killer in an effort to observe the peculiarities of ordinary man.
The only thing more seamless than Chigurh’s hold on the movie-goer, however, is the directors’ cinematic technique that perfectly captures the essence of McCarthy’s novel, following the book down to its punctuated hesitations and gasps.
Indeed, given McCarthy and the Coens’ thematic similarities, I’m hard-pressed to say anyone could do a better job in bringing the story to film.
The Coen brothers improve upon McCarthy, however, subtly imbuing “No Country” with an underlying absurdist humor and atmosphere that works to elicit a chuckle moments before an anxious groan.
They do such a good job in their manipulation of the audience, in fact, that I’m inclined to believe that even the less-compelling parts of the film, specifically Sheriff Bell’s account of a dream, are intended as some veiled metaphor about mundane existence.
In summation, “No Country for Old Men” is a film of near-perfect execution, what with its deft balancing of visceral thrills and philosophical search for meaning in a largely meaningless world. If nothing else, you might watch it over Christmas break and reflect on how maybe 10th week isn’t that bad after all.