No Country for Old Men opens with a series of shots of a dry, desolate Texas, a place that seems unkind to both man and beast. Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) begins to speak in voice-over, ruminating on his life, on his being a sheriff, admiring the men who served before him, and lamenting the way that crime has spun out of control these days.
His words come straight from Cormac McCarthy’s source novel, but if the scene looks familiar, it’s because the Coen Brothers have used it before. Shot by shot, this scene is cribbed from their debut picture Blood Simple. There, the sleazy detective, played by the great character actor M. Emmett Walsh, delivered lines that were so much more potent that McCarthy’s overwrought sermon. Walsh muses on the Russians, and how Communists are theoretically supposed to help each other out in life. Not in his backyard. "What I know is Texas," he says. "And down here… you’re on your own."
The Coens have been known for borrowing from other movies, which is no crime except in the fact that, as I pointed out in November’s Rake, it seems as though they’re more concerned with winking at their sly references than actually developing character or building tight plots. Oddly enough, No Country continues that trend, except that the Coens have taken to devouring their own tails: this movie references their own films repeatedly, with shots that mimic Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing and Fargo. Once again, with No Country for Old Men, they’ve made a slick, entertaining film utterly devoid of emotional resonance and meaning. It’s as empty as a toy gun.
By now, we all know the story: Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is out antelope hunting in the Texas plains when he comes across a drug deal gone bad. A number of dead bodies are rotting in the sun, inexplicably left untouched by the desert animals (this is noted later and then casually dismissed in that "coyotes don’t eat Mexicans".) Moss discovers a truck bed full of bags of some illicit drugs, investigates further and finds a satchel containing two million dollars. Of course, people will be after that two million bucks, including Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem.)
We’ve been introduced to Chigurh earlier–he was arrested and then strangled a sheriff’s deputy with a pair of handcuffs. This maniac wanders around Texas with a slaughterhouse stun gun, murdering or toying with the ever-polite townsfolk of rural Texas, caricatures that have stepped right off the set of Fargo. Chigurh is not a real human being, but a force of nature. He is hired to go after the money, but for whatever reason doesn’t really seem to care about the money. In fact, he kills the men who hired him, has no regard for the police who pursue him, and basically wrecks everything in his path. He goes after bumpkins at truck stops, old chicken farmers, blows up automobiles, shoots up small towns, walks into high-rises to blast businessmen, kills other hit men, hotel desk clerks, you name it. No one can stop the man. If he is a man.
Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Bell serves as our moral guide, and is the utterly ineffective arm of the law who is chasing Moss in the hopes of saving him from Chigurh. In the course of the film, he will ruminate at length about the decline of Western Civilization, usually over a cup of coffee. He will do little else.
Ah, but there’s more–the men who were involved in the drug deal, a number of faceless Mexicans who are easily dispatched and their white counterparts. The Mexicans don’t talk, don’t get any screen time except to die easily, while the white guys are given time to wonder about the phenomenon that is Anton Chigurh. One of these is the bounty hunter Carson Wells, who compares Chigurh to the bubonic plague. Hint, hint, our killing machine is a random act of the God of the Old Testament, just like plague, just like floods, just like locusts. In case you didn’t get it, the lesson will be repeated throughout.
No Country for Old Men is exciting in much the same way as John Carpenter’s original Halloween, except that it’s long, talky, and its characters nothing more than props on which Cormac McCarthy can drape his endless moralizing. Tommy Lee Jones, looking wearied from the lawlessness and chaos spinning out of his control, gives us one of his few weak performances. There is little reason for his inability to deal with the changing society–if it is changing (one fellow officer blames their woes on piercings and tattoos, as if that’s what’s prompted Chigurh to roam about blasting people.) Jones had a similar role, that he bit into with relish, in the superior In the Valley of Elah. There he was a vet who saw the same thing: values challenged in a modern society that seems in a state of flux. Here he stares and speaks, a man without urgency, who seems more interested in sipping coffee and figuring out what the killings mean than actually solving anything.
This is clearly the Coens most "serious" film. And yet, it is full of references to their other movies, ones that didn’t think quite as highly of themselves, and at times it’s hard not to laugh at the similarities. Like when Llewelyn hurls his bag of money over the fence at the U.S.-Mexican border and into the reeds, hoping it will suffice as a hiding spot. This is right out of Fargo, when Steve Buscemi digs a hole in the snow with an ice scraper, hoping to hide his loot. Or Chigurh slowing down in his car, leaning over with his gun and shooting at a hawk, just to indicate what a bad-ass he is. Shot by shot it’s the same as the one in Raising Arizona, when Randall "Tex" Cobb, the demon motorcyclist, blows rabbits away from his motorcycle while Nick Cage narrates, "He was especially cruel to little things," a line that would be a good fit here.
As usual in a Coen film, the "small" people in No Country for Old Men are dolts with goofy accents, people who wouldn’t give second thought to giving a man a smile and directions into town even if he were holding a bloody axe and covered in chunks of flesh. The Coens seem unwilling to trust their actors to bring more to their small roles than the lines they read–great films allow the small parts to shine, to enrich the overall plot. Here, they’re dead, empty. And Kelly McDonald, playing Llewelyn’s wife Carla Jean, is simply awful, with a grating accent to match her mother’s. Javier Bardem is very good, with what he has to work with. His Anton Chigurh is chilling. But more so than any other horror villain? Bardem seems to have taken a cue from Sir Anthony Hopkins–this’ll probably win him his Oscar.
There are moments of genuine suspense here, and the Coens are crack filmmakers when it comes to shooting scenes of chase and gunplay. They have an eye for detail that remains impressive, like sweating milk bottles, scuff marks on a tile floor (from the strangling of the first sheriff’s deputy), dust swirling through the light of a hole where a lock used to be as Chigurh waits for another victim.
If only they would devote as much attention to their characters and their plots. What are the motivations of these people? Llewelyn takes the money, but never talks about what it would mean to him. Chigurh never addresses why he’s intent on killing people, any people. At times the gunplay gets so out of hand you wonder where all
the rest of the world has gone–how the hell do you shoot up a Main Street in a small town and not have the cops arrive or other folks darting about for their lives?
Worst of all, the fate of Llewelyn Moss indicates a cavalier or contemptuous attitude from both Cormac McCarthy and the Coens. The climax of this film happens offscreen, merely an afterthought, to allow the Meaning of the Story to be hammered into our brains, just in case we didn’t get it in the first two hours. All Moss’ work, all his pain and suffering, all the multitude of death that he’s seen, merely drifts away so that Sheriff Bell can drink coffee and philosophize in not one but two lengthy scenes. Imagine this in, say, A Nightmare on Elm Street, or Halloween–law enforcement officers stopping from chasing these teen-killers to stop at a diner to mutter things like "the crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure." Well, it’s hard to take its measure because it’s not real. Chigurh isn’t any more a reflection of the modern criminal than Freddie or Mike Myers. But that this ostensibly probing dialogue comes at the expense of understanding Moss’ plight is a disgrace.
The act is getting old. No Country for Old Men was no great shakes of a novel, and now it is an overpraised thriller, impressed with itself, all technique and no heart. I’ll take Blood Simple, as it was brief and funny in spots, or, even better, cheap 70s fare like Charley Varrick or the great modern noir One False Move, both heartfelt, moving thrillers. I want to see movies about people. No Country for Old Men is a story about men struggling in a waste land of conflicting moralities, but the real waste land is the filmmakers’ attitude towards their characters. Maybe someday the Coens will abandon their props, look around, and see the human beings that live and breathe around them.