WITH “No Country for Old Men,” the Coen brothers drop the mask. They’ve put violence on screen before, lots of it, but not like this. Not anything like this.
The story of stolen drug money and the horrific carnage it precipitates, “No Country for Old Men” doesn’t celebrate or smile at violence, it despairs of it, despairs of its randomness, pervasiveness, its inescapable nature, of the way it eats at the soul of society and the individuals in it.
An intense, nihilistic thriller as well as a model of implacable storytelling, this is a film you can’t stop watching even though you very much wish you could. That’s because “No Country” escorts you through a world so pitilessly bleak, “you put your soul at hazard,” as one character says, to be part of it.
That would be Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a third-generation West Texas lawman who has to worry about Llewelyn Moss, a local man who absconded with $2.4 million in drug cash, and Anton Chigurh, a psychotic killing machine with a peculiar moral compass that’s as hard to decipher as his accent. Or his haircut. With Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem doing the honors, respectively, this is definitely acting to write home about.
“No Country” is also all you could hope for in a marriage between the brothers (Ethan and Joel share writing, directing and producing credit this time around) and Cormac McCarthy, who wrote a novel so blistering it’s actually more hopeless than the film.
Although only the spawn of the Marquis de Sade would consider this harrowing, uncompromisingly violent film a comedy, the Coens have understood the potential for acid humor in the dialogue and even added an unexpected comic moment or two, like a cheerful norteno band waking a seriously wounded man.
And although they’ve been making gleeful films about violence since 1984’s “Blood Simple,” it took McCarthy’s measured, apocalyptic novel to provide the Coens with the opportunity to say something serious about situations they’ve largely joked about before.
The Coens were impressed enough with McCarthy’s intense prose (he won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Road”) and his great gift for vernacular speech to transfer major chunks of his dialogue from the page to the screen. They also put their decades of experience at the service of creating a measured, classic tone that provides the ideal vehicle for conveying the constant chaos of the plot.
Much of the film, pointedly set in 1980 when the border drug traffic was just heating up, was shot in New Mexico by the Coens’ long-time cinematographer, Roger Deakins. Essential atmospheric exteriors, however, were shot in West Texas at the insistence of costar Jones, a native of the Lone Star state. “He yelled at us that [New Mexico] would be a mistake,” Ethan Coen said at the film’s Cannes debut. “So it wasn’t all principle, it was partially browbeating.”
Just as the picture demanded those West Texas exteriors, the role of Ed Tom Bell demanded Jones, who gives one of the great performances of his career as the overmatched lawman who says, “The crime you see now, it’s hard to take its measure.”
Though the Coens liked the idea of Jones’ tartness in the good-guy role (“We had a horror of sentimentality, we didn’t want Grandpa Charlie Weaver,” said Ethan), both the filmmakers and the actor worried that his taking on this part was too obvious a pick. In truth, however, it’s hard to think of anyone who could’ve brought McCarthy’s impeccable ear for regional speech so convincingly to the screen. When the sheriff’s deputy says, ‘It’s a mess, ain’t it?,” it’s pure pleasure to hear Jones handle the rejoinder -- “If it ain’t, it’ll do until the mess gets here” -- with trademark aplomb.
One of the subversive conceits of “No Country” is that, for all Sheriff Bell’s experience and skill, he is more of a passive character than an active one, functioning as a kind of Greek chorus who comments on and contextualizes the action rather than being at the heart of it.
The person at the dangerous center of things is Llewelyn Moss, who comes across that drug cash while out hunting and makes it his own. Smart, wary, laconic and resourceful, Llewelyn thinks of himself, his wife Carla Jean says, as capable of “taking on all comers.” Despite some heady competition, the supple and ever-surprising Brolin gives what will surely be a career-making charismatic performance.
What Llewelyn doesn’t count on is the nature of the man coming after him. With a sickly vampire’s complexion, an unpronounceable name and an inexplicable Buster Brown hairdo, Anton Chigurh is literally a person who would as soon kill you as look at you. With a compressed-air slaughterhouse stun gun as his weapon of choice, Chigurh, played by the chillingly effective Bardem, is the key reason so much graphic blood is spilled on screen.
Though these three men gather the most attention, “No Country” has many other strong performances, including Gene Jones, Beth Grant and Kathy Lamkin in small but memorable roles. Especially noteworthy is Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald, letter perfect as Llewelyn’s West Texas wife Carla Jean, a situation so unexpected that the Coens, intent on casting regionally, only saw her because casting director Ellen Chenoweth insisted.
No one should go into “No Country for Old Men” underestimating the unnerving intensity of its moments of on-screen violence, its parade of corpses and geysers of spurting blood. But as the story unfolds with the awful inevitability of a modern myth, it’s clear that the Coen brothers and McCarthy are not interested in violence for its own sake but for what it says about the world we happen to live in. “I got it under control,” a confident deputy says, and in moments he is dead. He didn’t have anywhere near the mastery he imagined, and in this truly despairing vision, neither does anyone else.
“No Country for Old Men.” MPAA rating: R, for strong graphic violence and some language. Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes. In limited release.