THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Yeates poem, Sailing to Byzantium, is both the progenitor and the essence of the title for the Oscar winning film from the Coen brothers. The opening monologue is almost a west Texas restatement of the opening stanza. It ends with the words “I’ll be a part of this world”. But the second scene lets you know the heart of the movie. A deputy is strangled by a prisoner with a pair of handcuffs. The camera lingers on the scuff marks on the floor from the deputy’s patent leather shoes. A snow angel in show polish on the linoleum, showing the pattern of the dying mans struggle as his soul leaves this world.
It’s that kind of depth and artistry, visual metaphor and complex theme, that marks all the Coen brothers’ movies. That has almost become a trademark of Joel and Ethan Coen. Rarely has there been such a filmography as varied as theirs. They’ve made slapstick comedy (RAISING ARIZONA), musical comedy (O’ BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU), farce (THE LADYKILLERS), crime drama (BLOOD SIMPLE), drama (FARGO), Harold Hawks 1940s comedy (HUDSUCKER PROXY), sexual politics (INTOLERABLE CRUELTY). They even made THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE, whatever the hell genre that was. But while it’s easy to put each of these into a particular genre, it’s impossible to ignore that each of them turns that genre on its head. Every Coen film is both different and different from all other films that are similar.
And this movie, what is there to say. Rarely has an Oscar winner been such an unusual film. So much of what comes out of Hollywood is just fluff that provides mindless entertainment and bolsters the status quo (in spite of what the conservatives think). This film is entertaining and suspenseful, but is also disturbing in that it doesn’t conform to much of what you expect from a movie, or the conventions of fiction. The main characters never meet, the pacing is steady and the scenes invoke Hitchcock rather than what we’ve become accustomed to for the last 30 years. The violence (and there’s a lot) is realistic but not overly gory. The ending is ambiguous. The themes are death, aging, greed, man’s place in his world. It’s a complex tapestry with many threads woven together yet it can be enjoyed as just a riveting story of a drug deal gone bad. It is a masterful tour de force from a pair of artists who are mature and self-confident in their craft. It is surprising and disturbing and absolutely unthinkable to miss for anyone who thinks cinema is something more than soap opera or a venue for the art of pyrotechnics.
Don’t get hurt.
Don’t hurt no one.
-[pause] If you say so.
That this movie won the Oscar for best picture and best director is a tribute to having a cinema award that is voted for by actual movie professionals. It was certainly not the most popular movie of the year. But it was, arguably, the most cinematic. The story is told almost entirely in images. The subtext is in the dialogue. In fact, you could watch the movie as a silent film and understand the plot without problem. Such is the Coens’ genius. Art is that which is complexly satisfying.
The actors who play the three main characters dissolve and inhabit their respective roles. Tommy Lee Jones is at home here in a type of role he has almost come to epitomize. The aging west Texas sheriff who has seen the worst of humanity. Only by refusing to stare into the abyss does he skirt the edge of cynicism and keep doing his job. But deep down, he knows. In a classic western he would be the good guy, and here he is the closest thing to a hero that there is. But he doesn’t get his man, and eventually all he can take into retirement is the knowledge that things really aren’t any worse than they ever have been. Tommy Lee has played this role in everything from THE FUGITIVE to THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA and it fits him like a well worn work glove.
Josh Brolin, as Llewelyn Moss, is the down on his luck country boy who stumbles on a windfall of drug money and tries to hold on to it. The fact the character is a Vietnam veteran is only tangential. None of the post war angst of so many earlier period pieces is evident here. His history is only an explanation of why he is able to hold his own with the hard men he has chosen to oppose. But there is none of the altruistic motivation that would make him heroic in the classic sense. This western is post-modernistic in a way that is a quantum leap away from the post-modernism of UNFORGIVEN. It’s almost western-noir. Greed is the only motivation for the character who actually drives the story. Greed and the kind of dogged self reliance that Americans see as noble even in the absence of noble motives. Brolin makes you believe that he is both that Joe Six-Pack that lives down the road, and the kind of independent man who could survive when called upon to do so.
And Havier Barden as Chigurh (not inconsequentially pronounced as the carbohydrate more often than the correct “shoe-garr), the cold-blooded killing machine with a code of ethics that eschews morality, won the Oscar for his portrayal. From haircut to boots, from inside to outside, he gives us a vision of true evil that is as different but just as riveting as Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lector. Almost every clip of the movie inclues his confrontation with the gas station owner. That’s both good and bad. It is the heart of the character. Random violence and the terrible capriciousness of it. But having seen this scene so many times robs it of some of its impact. Nevertheless, watching it play to its conclusion is still something of cinema that will haunt your dreams for years to come.
The supporting cast is also stellar. Darret Gilihunt plays Sheriff Tom Bell’s deputy, Wendell, and somehow stands his own with this extraordinary cast as a bit player the same way he did in THE ASSINATION OF JESSIE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. He reminds me of Peter Krause in his look and manner and perhaps that prejudices me to like him since I’ve been a fan of Krause since his days on SPORTSNIGHT but he still seems to pick roles that are subordinate yet memorable. Here the deputy he portrays is, as almost everything in the movie, not the typical role. He may be a half-step behind Tommy Lee Jones’ Ed Tom Bell but he is no Barney Fife. He sees what has happened enough to clarify what the audience has already realized, thus making sure that we are carried along.
Likewise Kelly McDonald as Clara Jean Moss, Llewlyn’s wife, is completely convincing in her role. It was surprising to hear her talk in her native lilting Irish brogue on the supplemental materials on the Blu-Ray disk. As a resident of the south for most of my life, I was completely taken in. Such a convincing performance is often overlooked by the Academy as it is by the audience. Sometimes an actor is simply too good and fools everyone. I was fooled. There is no greater imaginable praise for a performance.
In short, Rarely has a film been so profound and poignant. Rarely has a piece of theater rivaled Hamlet and Hitchcock in dealing with the vagaries and themes of life and death, choice and chance, violence and calm. No Country For Old Men is the pinnacle of the Coens’ genius for film and a pinnacle of the art of cinema. When NO COUNTRY is finished you have the sense that you have been carried away to another place, another time, to see the lives of other people. That is what film is all about. The stuff of dreams.