Ever since their first movie, 1985’s low budget neo-noir “Blood Simple,” the writing and directing team known as the Coen brothers have always been visual stylists—not in a rich-art-direction-Baz Luhrmann (who fills every frame of “Moulin Rouge” to the limit with splashes of color) kind of way, but more in a Gregg Toland-deliberate-camera-placement-and-lighting-scheme kind of way. Over the years, this style has become less showy and more evocative. In their latest film, “No Country for Old Men,” they prove they can hold an audience in thrall with the simplest of cinema’s elements—a memorable image.
Joel and Ethan’s violent and beautiful new movie, an adaptation of a 2005 Cormac McCarthy novel, is overflowing with expressive camera shots that still linger in my mind: the silhouette of a lone truck atop a hill, a boot-scuffed floor that looks like a crazed charcoal drawing, the crack of light beneath a door blotted out by a menacing shadow. Their significance to the story—a profoundly disturbing tale of single-minded destruction—cannot be underestimated. These images are as important as any character, and the formalistic prowess that the Coens wield in “No Country” is as electrifying as it is effortless.
The mere sight of an airtank will be enough to send shivers down my spine for some time after witnessing how it is used with a retractable bolt gun in the hands of remorseless killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). He’s after a Vietnam veteran who lives in a Texas trailer park named Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who finds himself in deep when he comes upon the remnants of a drug deal gone bad. (Even this wordless scene has a surreal quality.) The classic noir setup finds Moss unable to resist the temptation of $2 million, even though he knows it comes with a heavy price. Meanwhile, an old sheriff nearing retirement named Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) tracks Moss, not so much to recover the stolen loot, but mostly to save him from the wrath of Chigurh. To call this simply a chase movie, however, would be to underestimate its brooding power. There is so much more at work here than visceral thrills.
That said, “No Country for Old Men” is also the scariest film I’ve seen all year. Moments that would normally be cut out of lesser, quicker-paced movies are the lifeblood of this one. There are frequent bursts of striking violence, but the Coens also take the time to show the life-changing moments right after something shocking has just taken place. The manner of death or serious injury is not nearly important as showing how the survivors deal with it.
Sheriff Bell doesn’t care for it at all. Jones’ dialogue is humble, but poetic. Interspersed throughout Chigurh’s propensity for casual bloodshed, the sheriff’s musings are a welcome respite from a high body count, and an elegy for a bygone breed of man—one who didn’t need a gun to be a lawman. His opening narration sets a philosophical tone, as he talks of staring into the face of a convicted killer with little understanding about what this world has come to. In this way, “No Country” works as a sort of companion piece to the Coens’ best movie, 1996’s “Fargo.” Both have very specific locales and characters that typify those areas, and both are about man’s propensity for unthinkable callousness, and a stubborn resolve to not let it change you.
“Fargo”’s Minnesota Sheriff Marge Gunderson is perplexed by her case’s seemingly aimless violence, where Texas Sheriff Bell is more reflective and despondent. Marge can claim victory over this symptom of the universe (she finds happiness the little things, such as her husband’s prize-winning three-cent stamp), whereas Bell sees it as a trend; something bigger and more sinister. In “No Country,” the decision to decision to dole out death is even more random than “Fargo.” Chigurh decides some of his possible victims’ fates by a mere coin toss—a truly black-hearted amusement. Marge had a very determined Midwestern sense of keep-on-keeping-on, but in “No Country,” it seems that there is no hope.
The Coens’ dialogue is lean and purposeful. Nothing is wasted. In fact, Moss has about as little dialogue as any main character I’ve seen outside of silent film. Like his pursuer’s method of killing, the storytelling in “No Country” is plenty efficient. Moss travels alone, trying to stay one step ahead of death, and every scene without dialogue is there for a reason. It gives the audience a lot of time to second guess the motives for his actions, while we also ask ourselves what we would do. Moss is easy to identify with. He knows he’s making a mistake, but thinks he’s smart enough to make his decision worth the risk. It is this dread-filled atmosphere that imbues even the most harmless of images (like cloud shadows moving in over the vast desert floor) with a heavy dose of foreboding. In the context of what we’ve seen already, it’s enough to put a big lump in your throat.
Can a movie be beautiful and terrifying at the same time? Yes. “No County for Old Men” proves it. There are plenty of gorgeous landscapes that are beautifully shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins, but these are not pretty for aesthetics’ sake. It is their emptiness that lingers. Just like another running visual motif of trails of blood on the ground, these shots are infused with dread— reminders that the wounded cannot hide. Once the damage is done, your chances of getting out alive are smaller and smaller.
“No Country for Old Men” reminds us that our existence on this planet is equal parts fulfilling and completely senseless. The Coens, often times accused of regarding their characters too clinically, feel this deeply. They are not downplaying this fact, although it does make things ripe for their trademark gallows humor. Sheriff Bell says that Chigurh is “like a ghost,” but he feels more like the Angel of Death, and he doesn’t knock.