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“No Country for Old Men”

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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.

So what do we end up with? Well, as a thriller, “No Country for Old Men” is tight, pointed, and immune to the temptations of speed. I found myself in the same predicament with the film as with the book—approaching both in a state of rare excitement, yet willing myself, all too soon, to be more engaged than I actually was. If I want wry lawmen and smart, calculating fugitives, I’ll get them from Elmore Leonard; and, if I want Leonard, I’ll take him neat, rather than slow-filtered, drop by drop, through a layer of Faulkner, then laced with the Book of Jeremiah. That is how the novel sounded to me, at any rate, and McCarthy’s bent for the apocalyptic—most naked in “The Road” (2006), a greater work by far—suffers a curious transformation in the hands of the Coens. It shrinks into a fatalistic fetishism: screws turned by knives, a cold bottle of milk still sweating from the fridge, dust tracks at the bottom of a ventilation shaft, and countless slowly spreading pools of blood.

Needless to say, you could call every one of those details as a witness to the Coens’ powers of suspense, and “No Country for Old Men” is beyond question a return to the dark, simmering days of their best work, in “Blood Simple” and “Miller’s Crossing.” The travesty of recent years (how much would you pay not to watch “Intolerable Cruelty” or “The Ladykillers” again?) is all but wiped out by the new film, although, as with those two fumbles at comedy, there remains a nagging sense that the Coens are not so much investing their emotions in a cinematic genre—in this case, the Western revenge drama—as picking it up, inspecting it, and then setting themselves the task of constructing a perfect copy. Acts of monstrosity are coolly perpetrated throughout, but the resulting film strays beyond cool to the verge of the passionless; if Deakins’s camera leans in close to gaze on damaged flesh (we focus on Chigurh’s leg as he swabs and stitches a gunshot wound), that is not because the Coens harbor any tenderness or pity, still less an urge to lament the legacy of violence. They simply retain a juvenile weakness for gore, challenging us to match their sang-froid and saluting Chigurh himself for showing the way.

There is no denying that Javier Bardem cuts a singular figure. For one thing, he currently has the biggest, noblest, and most sculpted head of anyone in movies (previous titleholders include John Huston), and I can never quite suppress the thought, watching him onscreen, that he must have flown straight to the set from Easter Island. So why burden him, for this film, with a helmetlike hair style that makes him look like the fifth Monkee? The answer is that Chigurh is less a person than a conceit: an angel of death, stalking the landscape like a plague. As with his weapon of choice—a stun gun, powered by compressed gas, of the type normally used in the slaughter of cattle—the hair is a design quirk, filling in for a character trait. The movie charts no moral shift in Chigurh, or indeed in the men around him; all of them are set in stone from the beginning (Sheriff Bell appears to be made from stone), and we gradually realize that “No Country for Old Men” is not telling a tale—the plot remains open-ended—but reinforcing the legend of a place, like a poem adding to an oral tradition. Texas is presented as a state of being, where good and evil circle doggedly around each other, and it just doesn’t occur to Moss that he could take his black bag, catch a flight, and seek a world elsewhere. I was awed by the control of the movie, which seems as pressurized as Chigurh’s murder machine, but after an hour and a quarter I felt that it had made its point and done all the damage it could. In the event, it crawls past the two-hour mark, and you sense that the Coens, like their unkillable villain, are prepared to go on forever.