No Country for Old Men


Movie review by Greg Carlson

An early holiday gift, “No Country for Old Men” is cinematic catnip for admirers of Cormac McCarthy, the Coen Brothers, or both. Tremendously faithful to its source material, the movie is a case study in novel-to-film translation, honoring most of the letter and all of the spirit of McCarthy’s grim tale. Joel and Ethan Coen, sharing screenplay and directing credits, operate comfortably within their element, combining bursts of grisly violence with moments of thoughtful reflection. The Coens also lace the story with their signature humor, served as black as midnight.

Essentially a lengthy cat and mouse pursuit, “No Country for Old Men” follows the fortunes and misfortunes of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin, never better), a southwest Texas hunter who stumbles upon the aftermath of a bloody drug deal and makes off with a briefcase stuffed with cash. Moss is smart enough to know he’ll be tracked by the good guys and the bad guys, and much pleasure is derived from watching him struggle to stay an eyelash ahead of the predators who aim to recover their prize. Leading the malevolent forces is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the sort of person one might cross the street to avoid.

Representing something akin to the Angel of Death, Chigurh is the stuff of nightmares. A relentless psychopath who sports a weird Prince Valiant coiffure, Chigurh is willing to dispatch anyone who crosses his path, a task he often performs with a captive bolt cattle stun gun. Occasionally allowing his victims the opportunity to save their lives with the toss of a coin, Chigurh operates with an ice-cold personal logic that leaves no room for second-guessing or remorse. Bardem plays his part with zest, discovering all kinds of opportunities to bring depth and humor to a figure of seriously damaged psychological complexity.

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, embodied by Tommy Lee Jones as if he was born for the role, senses the depth of Moss’ predicament and aims to deliver him from harm’s way. An old-fashioned lawman concerned by what he sees as the erosion of values and traditions, Bell also instinctively knows he is up against something unusual and formidable, and tries to act accordingly. Chigurh and Bell, who travel along parallel paths that initially seem destined to intersect, make an ideal match, and the Coen Brothers effortlessly balance their importance to the narrative.

Typical of work by the Coens, the supporting actors are uniformly well chosen, and many bit players register memorably. “No Country for Old Men” also boasts top-notch technical credits, including gorgeous cinematography from ace collaborator Roger Deakins and smashing sound and production design. Some viewers may be surprised by just how much of the story is told without dialogue, a technique that pays off again and again, especially in blisteringly suspenseful sequences that recall the best of Alfred Hitchcock. Longtime Coen devotees will surely call to mind “Blood Simple,” another chilling yarn hell bent on gazing coolly at the stupid decisions people make, and how they have to live or die with them.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/26/07.

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