Life ain’t fair. Be it the sudden, unexpected death of a loved one to your boss crapping all over your cushy job by dropping a ton of busy work on you at the last second on a Friday, it’s all just not fair. But it’s also the way things go and there’s scarcely any way to control it. Such is one of the many overwhelming feelings I got after having the wind knocked out of me by the Coen Brothers (by way of Cormac McCarthy) new, masterful film “No Country for Old Men.” The film is equal parts good versus evil mixed with serial killer on the loose. Combine that with heist/caper film antics and another part…slice of whacked out life and the end result? Let’s just say it’s all amazing. “No Country for Old Men” is exactly the kind of challenge film buffs will love if you’re sick of the by the numbers, multiplex drivel. And if you aren’t yet sick of that crap, “No Country for Old Men” will still keep you enthralled for two hours.
Am I fawning? Yes I am. But rarely has a film got inside my head so quickly that the second it was over, I couldn’t wait to see it again. And I won’t lie, I find the Coen Brothers to be eternally frustrating in their mastery of the visual coupled with complete bumbling disregard for solid storytelling. If anyone can tell me what happens in “The Big Lebowski” after Donny (Steve Buscemi) dies you’ve either seen the film over twenty times or you have a photographic memory. My point being, I feel like the Coen’s often lose themselves in their little visual, idiosyncratic worlds and in the end the story they’re trying to tell falls short. However I am now forbidden to ever knock the Coen’s again, even if the steady hand of Cormac McCarthy’s novel guiding the way was the cause of “No Country for Old Men.” This film, the acting and the directing are all wicked and brilliant.
A plot summary is in order, but I’ll do so quickly as my rendition of events won’t come close to what’s really going on. Local yokel Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) is out hunting one day when he comes across a drug deal gone awry. Some poking around soon finds him in possession of a large sum of cash which he quickly absconds with and hides in his trailer. Meanwhile mass murderer Anton Chigurh (Bardem) escapes from custody for the umpteenth time and resumes his bloody tromp across the U.S., annihilating anything in his path. Literally anything in his path. Chigurh is like the embodiment of the worst kind of bully, the kind that if you look at him wrong or say even slightly the wrong thing, your days could be over. But even worse, Chigurh takes his killing a step further and lets “fate” decide. Rounding out the disjointed (but becoming more and more connected) trio of lead characters is idealistic small town sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Jones) who does a fine job as local law but when the s**t hits the fan, he’ll be the first to tell you he may not be the best guy for the job.
Chigurh catches the scent of Llewelyn and gets after him for the cash. Meanwhile, Bell knows Llewelyn is in over his head (hell, they both are) and sets out to find him before Chigurh or a slew of hired Mexicans do. Yet as basic as this plot sounds, the film isn’t really “about” any of that. At once a classic embodiment of good versus evil, the film also toys with audience expectations and it’s totally refreshing, if not wholly frustrating. Here, the people with the answers are usually dead wrong. The heroes aren’t very heroic and the meanies are meaner than many you’ve seen in some time. Sam Peckinpah once lamented the fact that the violence he showed onscreen was interpreted as operatic and beautiful when he meant for it to be shocking and horrific. The same mistake cannot be made here as “No Country for Old Men” is bloody and disturbing. The violence is also jarring and, well, really violent. Every person who has griped about Eli Roth’s films or the “Saw” franchise is required to see this film. But there’s even more to be seen.
Brolin, Bardem and Jones are spot-on and not in the usual way. That is to say, Jones doesn’t do his curmudgeonly old man routine and Bardem is different than I’ve ever seen him before. His embodiment of Anton Chigurh is so existentially nihilistic, evil and devoid of hardly any human element I would have found myself wondering what the actor was thinking about while in character if I wasn’t so drawn in by the performance. Josh Brolin is also excellent as the everyman hero, a guy you sincerely want to see succeed but who also seems doomed to failure. Kudos also to Kelly Macdonald as Llewelyn’s faithful wife Carla who adds sprinkles of insight to each character, lending a human touch to the whole affair.
But my strongest praise is saved for Joel and Ethan Coen who have taken a storyline from a writer as difficult to adapt as Bret Easton Ellis or Kurt Vonnegut and truly brought his words to life. Fans of the book will be floored by the near literal translation, but will also be blindsided by the Coen Brothers vision onscreen. They seem to make every element of the book come to life while also incorporating many of their signature touches along the way. “No Country for Old Men” is a return to form for the Coen Brothers and, while I feel the film will annoy and frustrate the masses, it will be looked back upon as one of the truly great movies of the first part of this new decade.