The conventional wisdom regarding No Country for Old Men is that it represents a return to greatness for the Coen brothers, a return to the glory of Miller’s Crossing and Fargo. Maybe that’s true, but when I watched it, I didn’t see their fingerprints. I saw Cormac McCarthy’s.
I was introduced to McCarthy’s work during a seminar I took spring term of my senior year of college. I was miserably sick at the time (either a relatively mild case of shingles or a relatively bad case of mono, depending on which doctor you believe—it infuriates me that I don’t have a label to ascribe to two of the worst months of my life), so I stumbled through Child of God and Suttree and Blood Meridian in a weary, queasy fog—an all too appropriate state for those books, which, despite their lyricism, are so nightmarishly grim that they’ll leave you dazed if you aren’t already. Honestly, I don’t consider myself a particularly idealistic person (and god knows I’ve become angrier and more paranoid in the past few years), but if I shared the shockingly cynical, pessimistic worldview McCarthy’s work seems to reflect, I’d end my life.
In any case, watching No Country for Old Men was like reading Blood Meridian. I appreciated its artistry and even enjoyed parts of it in a detachedly intellectual sort of way, but I spent much of the time desperate for it to be over.
The story is simple. While hunting in the desolate open country of west Texas, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles across a drug deal gone very bad and finds a suitcase containing two million dollars cash among the bullet-ridden corpses. He takes the money, which, inevitably, makes him the target of drug dealers, kingpins, assassins, and law enforcement on both sides of the border. Most fearsome among them is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a true sociopath determined to recover the money for himself. Meanwhile, aging sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), overwhelmed by the violence with which Chigurh is pursuing his quarry, desperately wants to bring Moss in before he ends up dead.
Without question, No Country is a stunningly well-made movie. The Coen brothers are nothing if not cinematic craftsmen, and No Country has a hauntingly spare aesthetic and a superb sense of timing. The use of sound, for example, is extraordinary, and many scenes are nearly silent but for the creak of floor boards, the beep of a nearing transponder, and the telltale hiss of the pressurized air tank for Chigurh’s cattle gun (his eccentric weapon of choice). As tense as a horror movie—and with the added weight of McCarthy’s literary bent—those episodes are both agonizing and spellbinding.
The acting, too, elevates the film. Bardem manages to make Chigurh into an eerily inhuman figure—a demonic angel of death—without flattening him into a one-dimensional bore. Jones accomplishes the similarly difficult feat of embodying decency without tipping toward pomposity or stupid naïvete. And Brolin’s Moss—taciturn, stubborn, smarter than he looks but not smart enough—kept my interest even when he didn’t have my sympathy. Actors in the smaller roles shone as well. Barry Corbin exuded hard-bitten wisdom in his single scene as an aging sheriff, and Kelly Macdonald’s performance in her final scene was unforgettable: emotionally rich and heartbreakingly vulnerable. (Earlier, she hadn’t been given much to do, but that final scene was a gem.)
I see so much to admire in No Country, from the Coens’ perfectly composed direction to their universally strong cast to the McCarthy’s apparent moral: We tend to believe that we live in particularly dangerous, violent times among particularly evil people, but that belief is nothing but vanity, for the world has always been dangerous and violent and evil, and it will continue to be so. It’s an oddly hopeful message (or it would be if McCarthy’s world weren’t so unrelentingly bleak), and I appreciated its timeliness. But all that admiration functions better in retrospect. While I was actually watching the movie, I was longing for it to end and put Moss and me out of our misery, and wondering why I’d decided to return to McCarthy’s miserable world in the first place.