I am a huge fan of the Coen Brothers, the duo behind such classics as “Fargo”, “The Man Who Wasn’t There”, “Blood Simple” and “Raising Arizona”. Their films gleefully mix a sense of humor so dark it could almost be black with whacky, off-center characters who get involved with violent events. When I first heard about “No Country for Old Men”, their new film based on a story by Cormac McCarthy, I was intrigued. “Country” appeared to have the same sort of wacky characters they are known for, but without the dark humor, placing these people in a dark, dramatic, violent story.
“No Country For Old Men” is even better than I could have imagined. It will be one of the best films of the year.
Texas, 1980. Lewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin, “American Gangster”) is out hunting when he happens across some blood. Following the trail, he finds the scene of a massacre, a bunch of off-road trucks in a circle, a bunch of dead guys, most of them Latino, and a truck filled with drugs. He continues to look around and finds one of the victims sitting under a tree with a satchel filled with $2 million sitting at his feet. Lewellyn knows the owner of this money will not simply let the money disappear, but he decides to play the odds and makes off with it. He hides it under his mobile home and tells his wife (Kelly McDonald) she has to go and visit her mother in Odessa. Anton Chiguhr (Javier Bardem) is sent to recover the money and the drugs. Visiting the scene of the crime, he quickly realizes someone else was there and figures out it was Lewellyn. Anton made a commitment to find and recover the money and he will not let anything, repeat anything, stand in the way of his commitment. Soon, he is hounding Lewellyn’s every step, using his weapon of choice, a can of pneumatic air and a cattle stun gun to remove any obstacles, including people and locked doors. Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) and his deputy (Garrett Dillahunt, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) happen upon the crime scene and also realize Lewellyn was involved, but at this point, they are a few steps behind, so Bell decides to try to contact Lewellyn’s wife in Odessa. If it was that easy for Bell to find the wife, you know Chiguhr (mispronounced “Sugar” by more than one person) will have no trouble. Thus begins an intense game of cat and mouse featuring one of the most reprehensible, evil villains I have ever seen on film.
“No Country for Old Men” is a violent film, but it seems more violent than it is and that is because of the mesmerizing performance of Javier Bardem. With a fish bowl haircut and a crooked grin complemented by dead eyes, Bardem’s Chiguhr is a bit like a flesh and bones version of Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. To call Chiguhr human would be wrong; there is nothing in this character that is human. From the moment he escapes custody and dispatches the deputy who has no idea what wrath he has brought upon himself, Chiguhr cuts a swatch across the Texas landscape, all in his quest to retrieve the money for his employer. Using the cattle gun, he leaves no traces of gunpowder or bullets in his victims, leading the authorities to come up with no clues. But worse than that, Chiguhr seems happiest when he is killing people.
As he is about to claim a victim, his mouth breaks into a crooked smile and his lifeless eyes attain a little glitter. Worse yet, people seem mesmerized by him and, since he rarely uses a gun or knife, they don’t seem to be threatened when he approaches with a large can of compressed air and a cattle gun.
As he begins his quest, Chiguhr also realizes this device can be used to get through locks and do so in such a way as to stun the intended victims.
As Bardem works to make this character one of the most evil I have ever seen on film, the Coen Brothers do a very smart thing. Both actor and filmmakers have so clearly established the villainy of this character, and the lengths he will go to, that they actually stop showing us the full extent of his acts upon his victims. We know what he is capable of, so when he dispatches one victim, it is enough to see a pool of blood slowly approach his boots. When he leaves another victims house, he checks his boots for blood, signaling to us what has just happened. Just like in the best horror films, our imagination fills in the details in a far scarier and effective way.
Josh Brolin is also very good as Lewellyn, a tough guy used to having to work for everything he has, and he doesn’t have much. The key to his performance is that he is able to make us believe he might just have a chance against Chiguhr, a remarkable accomplishment given how evil his adversary is. When Lewellyn initially stumbles across the crime scene, he shows us a certain level of smarts, he knows how to check the scene, how to protect himself, what he is looking for. A lot of this must come from his hunting background, as there isn’t any indication that he stumbles across a drug deal gone badly every day. When he sees the money, his greed overtakes him and he runs off with it. But he also has the common sense to try to hide it, and not immediately begin spending it, because that would raise too many suspicions in his small community.
And Lewellyn also has a conscience leading him to try to help one of the victims. This ultimately leads Chiguhr to him, so this act also leads us to suspect he isn’t always the best at making decisions.
In a way, the Coen Brothers have returned to their roots with “Country”. Much like their brilliant debut “Blood Simple”, this new film is pure drama, with a lot of violence, and it also seems to revisit some of the same classic types of situations they tried in their first film. But because they have matured as filmmakers, they have also developed their skills and these scenes are even more powerful. As Chiguhr hunts down Lewellyn, he tracks his prey with steely determination. Lewellyn hides out in an old hotel in a small Texas town. After he checks in, he looks through the bag of money. Soon, he senses something, a presence, and tries to prepare. This begins a chase through the small town with Chiguhr and Lewellyn facing off in the dark, silent town, leaving a few dead in their wake. As I watched, I remembered a similar scene in “Simple” when Ray (John Getz) is trying to outwit Loren (M. Emmett Walsh), the determined private eye, who is a little like Chiguhr-lite. Both scenes are very effective, but well-seasoned filmmakers, confident of their craft and skill, craft “Country”. “Simple” is exciting because the filmmakers who made that film were very raw.
With all of this madness circulating, much like a hurricane flowing through this Texas landscape, Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Bell is the perfect antidote. Calm, seasoned, intelligent, he looks at something and can pretty accurately assess the situation. He and his deputy have amusing conversations, with Bell almost always correctly contradicting his younger deputy’s theories. He provides the grounding force to the story.
Strangely, Bell is almost immediately able to figure out that Lewellyn was involved in this mess, in some way, but he is now a couple of steps behind the local and his pursuer. He knows he should contact his wife, Carla Jean, and even knows where she probably is, but she doesn’t offer any help. So he does the only thing he can do and follows the path of destruction, hoping to eventually cross paths with the two men.
Woody Harrelson has a brief turn as a private detective hired by the same people who hired Chiguhr. He sets out to try and persuade Lewellyn to return the money. When Chiguhr finds out someone has been sent to clean up after him, he becomes, shall we say, a little upset.
“No Country For Old Men” is a great, great film. There are so many things to like about it, it is impossible to list them all without revealing key moments in the plot. Everything, from the memorable performances, to the storytelling, to the cinematography is outstanding. Javier Bardem’s performance won’t soon be forgotten. And the fact the Coen Brothers are smart enough to realize that at a certain point, we only need the merest hint of violence to realize Chiguhr has been up to his usual business if particularly impressive. And yet another example of why the film is so effective.