November 8th, 2007

Chris Keeley

“No Country for Old Men”

by Anthony Lane

The new Coen brothers movie, “No Country for Old Men,” is set in Texas, with a foray over the border into Mexico. The cinematography is by Roger Deakins, a trusted collaborator of the Coens’, who holds the wide, camel-brown sweep of the Texas scrubland steady in the frame, as if he were filming the Serengeti. When a hunter named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) perches on a crag and trains his binoculars, or the telescopic sight of his rifle, on a herd on the plains below, we expect to see lions, not antelope. His shot misses, and the antelope leap away, but the next group in Moss’s vision lies still: a litter of abandoned vehicles and, scattered among them, human bodies. How Moss reacts to the carnage—or, to be exact, how intensely he underreacts—determines the rest of the film. Where you or I would throw up and call the cops, he bides his time, checks the surroundings, then wanders down to the scene. A drug deal has gone viciously wrong; one man is still breathing, and he whispers for water, but Moss walks away, with something better in mind. He finds it—a black case packed with two million dollars. Not bad for a day’s hunting.

What follows is an extended chase, with a number of interested parties joining the fray. There is Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), whose eyes have seen everything in this corner of the world, and who wants the law to reach Moss before something less merciful finds him. Later, there is Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), a hired hand, who prides himself on tracking down the most elusive prey. More stubborn than either of them is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). If you think the name is hard to place, try the rest of him. He is smiling, courteous, but essentially shorn of humor; his movements, though as careful and unhurried as a surgeon’s, are bent not on the relief of pain but on its violent imposition; and his idea of fun is to weigh a man’s life—should he perish, should he survive—on the toss of a coin. It is difficult to define what Chigurh wants from his own life. All we can say for sure is that he wants those two million bucks.

The film is adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, which in turn took its title from Yeats: “That is no country for old men. The young / In one another’s arms, birds in the trees.” No such vivacity—what Yeats calls the “sensual music” of the lusting world—haunts either the book or the film. True, there is a querulous speech by one of Bell’s fellow-sheriffs from another county, railing against today’s kids, “with green hair, bones through their noses,” but the Texas that looms up through the movie is no country for young men, either. There is barely any music, sensual or otherwise, and Carter Burwell’s score is little more than a fitful murmur. The story takes place in 1980, but cut out the cars and the drugs and we could be in 1880—look at Bell and his deputy, saddling up to scour the crime scene. (“You can’t help but compare yourself against the old timers,” Bell confides to us, in voice-over.) Indeed, the characters’ rapport with the soil is more reliable, in its grounded primitivism, than their relations with one another, and the Coens certainly honor the novelist’s abiding preference for the mythical over the modern. The most urgent pursuit comes not on a highway but down a rushing river, with a man being sought by a remorseless dog, as if by a hound from Hell.

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