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No Country for Good Men March 10, 2008

Posted by grhomeboy in Movies.
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The first time I watched No Country for Old Men I found it remarkably tense but also problematic, almost obscene, in its nihilistic worldview. Second viewing made it seem much less offensive – though also, surprisingly, much less exciting. It’s still a bleak, haunting film with a powerful and unusual texture; it’s also perhaps the artiest film to win the Best Picture Oscar in a decade, probably since The English Patient back in ’97, which I’m not suggesting is a bad thing. I’m just throwin’ it out there, as one of its drawling Texan tough guys might say.

There are three such tough guys. Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is a smouldering small-timer who works as a welder, at least till he finds a briefcase full of cash at the scene of a drug-deal gone wrong. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is a psycho assassin hired by the owners of the briefcase to track Moss down. These two play cat-and-mouse across the sere, unforgiving Texas landscape for most of the first half. The third cog is Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) an elderly small-town sheriff who follows the case, usually one step behind, and finally retires from law enforcement, declaring himself “overmatched” in today’s violent world. He’s presumably one of the “Old Men” for whom America is No Country.

The film opens with a voice-over by Ed Tom, marvelling at the old-time sheriffs who didn’t even carry guns; how would they fare today, he wonders, implying that such disregard for firepower might be suicidal. A man could “put his soul at hazard” by involving himself in today’s world – though in fact the film is set in 1980, the point being perhaps that today becomes yesterday, and old-timers always reckon things were better in the old days. Though the early 80s were also the apex of gun-crime in America, so maybe the point is a lot more straightforward.

The original book, by Cormac McCarthy, keeps coming back to Ed Tom, breaking up the plot with his musings at regular intervals. The film doesn’t, which is probably a mistake – putting way too much emphasis on Moss, who turns out to be a red herring. Moss is our hero, and he acts like a hero, using his wits to avoid his pursuers, refusing to buckle even after being shot, remaining defiant even though he’s “just a guy” against professional killers. But the film, it turns out, isn’t really about him – and, since the gloomy old sheriff doesn’t take centre-stage, except at the beginning and the end, that just leaves one possible hero: Chigurh.

Bardem won an Oscar, and Chigurh – the cold-blooded killer with the naff Prince Valiant haircut – is an iconic presence. But the Coen Brothers, who scripted and directed, have always been prone to a giggly, fetishistic love of violence, and the film’s take on this Spanish-accented psycho is disturbing, to put it mildly. It’s clear from the first time we see him kill, his face distended in a kind of frenzied ecstasy, that Chigurh likes to murder people; as the film progresses, though, he becomes more than just a murderer. He becomes “a ghost”, ubiquitous, indestructible. He’s shown to have a code of honour in a crazy way, allowing some victims to live if they win a coin-toss. We even see him calmly self-medicate when he gets hurt, the Coens make a point of showing his competence, which isn’t what villains are supposed to do. The classic movie template is that monsters are cowards, breaking down when their own self-preservation is threatened – think of Preacher in the classic Night of the Hunter (1955) or Stuntman Mike in last year’s Death Proof, howling like a beast at the sight of his own blood. Chigurh is different. He behaves like … well, a hero.

‘So what?’ you might say. Killer-heroes have been part of movies since the gangsters of the 1930s. But it’s the way No Country sets up its universe that’s objectionable.

Again and again, simple rural types are shown being trusting or polite with this serpent-like stranger, even stopping to help when his car breaks down, only to be murdered for their kindness. Even Moss is undone by a good deed – going back to the scene of the crime to take water to a dying man, thus revealing himself to the gangsters. Add the theme of obsolescence, and Ed Tom’s elegiac musings on The Way Things Used to Be, and you end on the cheaply cynical conclusion that kindness is dangerous, and the only way to survive in this world is to be suspicious and paranoid. ‘Never trust a stranger!’ is the closest thing to a Message; ‘Especially one with a foreign accent!’. It’s the same isolationist message the Coens brought to Fargo (1996) – where the only oasis of humanity was the cosy cocoon of Frances McDormand’s bedroom – and a message that clearly strikes a chord in today’s America, with its culture of fear and siege mentality. It’s no accident that Best Picture winners have been ‘dark’ in recent years, see also Crash and The Departed.

On first viewing, I thought Chigurh was meant to be the Devil, based on his indestructibility and the way his encounters with mere humans turn out to be non-events. The second time, a better reading occurred to me: that he’s simply Death, hence the repeated admonition that “You can’t stop what’s coming” – making the whole film a mournful metaphor for growing old. It’s not the world that changes, it’s one’s ability to keep up with it, that’s what being “overmatched” is all about. No Country works best if you pretend the whole thing is a dream Tommy Lee’s character is having – a dream about his fear of growing old, in which he tormentedly tries, but of course fails, to stave off the inevitable.

Second viewing also revealed something else: namely, how alien its slow, spare style must appear to a multiplex audience, first viewing was at a festival, where such things are par for the course. Sitting in a theatre, dialogue is sparse, music almost non-existent. Daringly, the Coens weave a spell by enveloping their film in a hush of withheld information – showing almost nothing, saying almost nothing, building the feel of a barren, blighted world as pitiless and empty as the rocky Texas vistas.

There were walkouts at the screening I attended; then again, for every walkout there may be a viewer who finds the film revelatory, their eyes opened to a new way of storytelling. It’s hard to begrudge the Coens their laconic mood-building – though knowledge of red herrings and general misdirection also makes that mood less compelling; second time around, I admired No Country without quite getting into it. There’s too much wrong with the film – its unearned nihilism and queasily ‘cool’ killer – and even the reticent, bone-dry tone seems a little self-conscious. One starts to long for a burst of energy, maybe for Juno MacGuff from fellow Best Picture nominee Juno to hijack the movie and start firing snarky one-liners at the gnomic old Texans: “Silencio, old man!”.

THIS YEAR’S BEST PICTURE WINNER IS BLEAK, PESSIMISTIC AND NOT FOR ALL TASTES > NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
DIRECTED BY Joel & Ethan Coen
STARRING Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones
US 2007 122 mins.

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