The Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men is finally out here in the UK. Although I enjoyed it, and would rate it amongst the best of their films, I still have something of a hard time understanding the insane hype it’s been getting from critics everywhere. It’s nothing new in their oeuvre, and hardly represents a significant development for them beyond its toning down of their usual cinematic playfulness.
Faithfully adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, the Coens evidently found in him a kindred spirit. The film is basically a less showy reworking of earlier works such as Blood Simple (1984), Miller’s Crossing (1990) and Fargo (1996). As if the filmmakers decided, once and for all, to get what they wanted to achieve with those movies exactly right.
All the themes are there: the absence of Order, the reign of fortuity, and moral Man’s prerogative, through his or her free will, to not accept this state of things. Central to the exploration of this in all of the films mentioned is the representation of the act of murder. And in this, No Country for Old Men is both more relentless and clearer than any of its predecessors. In Javier Bardem, who plays a hired killer casting himself as Fate, the Coens have found their most menacing figure, a walking mystery whose ethos the viewer is invited to passingly mistake for the truth.
The restraint brought to the description of this figure is characteristic of the movie as a whole. Where Fargo laid its miserable humanity of its tragedy bare, this film brings to it a kind of Texan stoicism, tempered ever so slightly with dry humor. Tommy Lee Jones as the human centre of the story is tight-lipped and ultimately rather closed-off, where the equivalent character in Fargo, wonderfully played by Frances McDormand, provided us with more of an emotional entry-point into the story
The same goes for Bardem’s killer. Although the problems he encounters on his way belie his ethos, he is an archetype, closed off to the viewer. His equivalent in Fargo, chillingly interpreted by Peter Stormare, actually invites some kind of identification in the viewer before decisively revealing his monstrosity.
Nevertheless, Fargo is the more pessimist of the two films. In counterpoint to that film’s exploration of immorality, No Country for Old Men unabashedly posits the moral outlook as a perhaps ultimately futile, but nevertheless necessary bulwark against the meaninglessness of chance. It even has a hero, ably played by Josh Brolin, who though insufferably stubborn fits the classic mould.
In a way, therefore, this is the Coens’ straightest story. Though they do play with our expectations of the genre, they refrain from their usual twinkle-in-the-eye subversiveness. This is their most disciplined film, and its restraint yields both narrative poignancy and moments of distinct beauty — a scan over a floor covered in a murdered man’s boot scrapings, a wounded, black attack dog filmed by a telephoto lens.
This, however, is also the film’s limitation. It keeps its cards to close to the body, never quite risking a revelatory play and thus never becomes really challenging, either in terms of character or theme. What it does it does extremely well — there is nothing wrong with perfectioning previous work — but the hyperbolic reception had left at least this viewer ungratefully hoping for more.
No Country for Old Men (2007), Joel and Ethan Coen. Image of Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in the movie. For somebody totally sold on the film, read Jim Emerson’s fine essay here.