Back to Archives

Miracle on film

Coen Brothers create a masterpiece of character and moral choices

Email Article Print Article Share on Facebook Share on Reddit Share on StumbleUpon

The movie opens with the flat, confiding voice of Tommy Lee Jones. He describes a teenage killer he once sent to the chair. The boy had killed his 14-year-old girlfriend. The papers described it as a crime of passion, “but he tolt me there weren’t nothin’ passionate about it. Said he’d been fixin’ to kill someone for as long as he could remember. Said if I let him out of there he’d kill somebody again. Said he was goin’ to hell. Reckoned he’d be there in about 15 minutes.”

These words sounded verbatim to me from “No Country for Old Men,” the novel by Cormac McCarthy, but I find they are not quite. And their impact has been improved upon in the delivery. When I get the DVD of this film, I will listen to that stretch of narration several times; Jones delivers it with a vocal precision and contained emotion that is extraordinary, and it sets up the entire film, which regards a completely evil man with wonderment, as if astonished that such a merciless creature could exist.

The man is named Anton Chigurh. No, I don’t know how his last name is pronounced. Like many of the words McCarthy uses, particularly in his masterpiece “Suttree,” I think it is employed like an architectural detail: The point is not how it sounds or what it means, but the brushstroke it adds to the sentence. Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is a tall, slouching man with lank black hair and a terrifying smile, who travels through Texas carrying a tank of compressed air and killing people with a cattle stun gun. It propels a cylinder into their heads and whips it back again.

Chigurh is one strand in the twisted plot. Ed Tom Bell, the sheriff played by Jones, is another. The third major player is Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a poor man who lives with his wife in a house trailer and one day, while hunting, comes across a drug deal gone wrong in the desert. Vehicles range in a circle like an old wagon train. Everyone on the scene is dead. They even shot the dog. In the back of one pickup are neatly stacked bags of drugs. Llewelyn realizes one thing is missing: the money. He finds it in a briefcase next to a man who made it as far as a shade tree before dying.

The plot will involve Moss attempting to make this $2 million his own, Chigurh trying to take it away from him, and Sheriff Bell trying to interrupt Chigurh’s ruthless murder trail. We will also meet Moss’ childlike wife, Carla Jean (Kelly McDonald), a cocky bounty hunter named Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), the businessman (Stephen Root) who hires Carson to track the money after investing in the drug deal, and a series of hotel and store clerks who are unlucky enough to meet Chigurh.

“No Country for Old Men” is as good a film as the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, have ever made, and they made “Fargo.” It involves elements of the thriller and the chase, but is essentially a character study, an examination of how its people meet and deal with a man so bad, cruel and unfeeling that there is simply no comprehending him. Chigurh is so evil he is almost funny sometimes; “He has his principles,” says the bounty hunter, who has knowledge of him.

The $2 million turns out to be easier to obtain than to keep. Moss tries hiding in obscure hotels. Scenes are meticulously constructed in which each man knows the other is nearby. Moss can run, but he can’t hide. Chigurh always tracks him down.

This movie is a masterful evocation of time, place, character, moral choices, immoral certainties, human nature and fate. It is also, in the photography by Roger Deakins, the editing by the Coens and the music by Carter Burwell, startlingly beautiful, stark and lonely. As McCarthy does with the Judge, the hairless exterminator in his “Blood Meridian” (Ridley Scott’s next film), and as in his “Suttree,” especially in the scene where the river bank caves in, the movie demonstrates how pitiful ordinary human feelings are in the face of implacable injustice. The movie also loves some of its characters, and pities them, and has an ear for dialogue not as it is spoken but as it is dreamed.

Many of the scenes in “No Country for Old Man” are so flawlessly constructed that you want them to simply continue, and yet they create an emotional suction, drawing you to the next scene. Another movie that made me feel that way was “Fargo.” To make one such film is a miracle. Here is another.

no country for old men


Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin

Director: Ethan and Joel Coen

Rated: R for strong graphic violence and some language

comments powered by Disqus