The Coen Brothers are truly two of the greatest filmmakers of my generation. Virtually every film is a masterpiece and although they have their shortcomings with the narrative arc of some of their films, they are never boring. They understand film language (which is to say, visual literacy) and when they are at their best, they are reinventing the genre they are working in. Like Blood Simple and Fargo, and now perhaps their greatest achievement, No Country For Old Men, the reinvent the genre again and raise the bar to new heights.
The film still has the classic Coen dialogue that makes you laugh in inappropriate places, but it may also be their most serious film since the grossly underrated, Miller’s Crossing (which still contains absurdist elements). Javier Bardem plays Antone Chigurh (like sugar) who is the epitome of the death. He has no pity, no remorse; he works on fate and fate alone. His character epitomizes the the fear we have as humans: uncertainty. The fear of not knowing what is to come or worse, not knowing when it will be coming. How can we predict what is unpredictable? How can we attempt to understand or rationalize what is irrational? There are character developments for Chigurh, no setting up of scenes, we enter the film in medias res, and are left wondering why? But isn’t that the natural response to death? To someone who embodies those characteristics and acts on fate alone? Chigurh is the thing we hate most because he lacks any answers. Any insight into his psyche. There are no answers you can give for Chigurh’s nature or what motivates him (it doesn’t ever appear to be the money or drugs) only questions as to why.
The Coen’s have made an ideal existential film based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, and the once scene that embodies this theme is the now famous “coin flip” scene. Much has been made of the “coin flip” scene so I will only add this, it is one of the most frightening and hilarious scenes I have ever seen – appropriate for this film that those two emotions go hand in hand, what else can one do when we don’t understand something besides laugh – I was on the edge of my seat awaiting the outcome hanging on every word spoken and trying to anticipate every action. The Coen’s walk a tightrope with this scene and they make it safely across with ease.
Silence and anticipation are prevalent (and key) throughout the film as there are many scenes that unfold without the aide of cheesy suspense music or an explanation of what’s happening from one of the characters. The characters know when the other is nearby, and the execution of these scenes are worthy of Hitchcock. A perfect example of this is the scene in the motel room where Moss (Josh Brolin) sits and waits for Chigurh to come to him room. The lack of cutaway, the silence, and the anticipation is masterfully done, and when Moss calls downstairs to the front desk for help, no cutaway is needed; we just hear the phone ring and ring and ring.
Chigurh is one of the great creations of modern cinema. He is the embodiment of death and as we all know death does not stop for anything. I think that that is the message of the film. As nihilistic as it is the film is a great entertainment, it just doesn’t have the tidiness of the Coen’s Fargo. At the end of that film Margie gives a beautiful monologue as the killer sits in the back of her trooper, she accosts him for killing over money where she says, “all for what? A little bit of money? I don’t get it, and yet here it is, and it’s a beautiful day”.
The final moments of No Country are quite different as retired sheriff Ed Tom Bell (great name), played by Tommy Lee Jones, remembers a dream he had the night before. The dream is crucial to understanding the film, but just like the “coin flip” scene, the end of the film has been much discussed. What most struck me about it was looking Jones’ face. Here is an actor who as he has gotten older, has made many great choices (okay not Man of the House, but we all have to get paid) and is one of those actors that can say so much with his face. Knowing this, I just watched his facial expressions as he was telling his dream, and his face made me think that Jones was saying that if Ed Tom Bell were younger, and not such an “old timer” (as explained in the opening voice over narration) he may have been able to go all the way in the Chigurh manhunt, but here he is at his kitchen table with nothing to do, and the payoff to the dream (and the end of the film) is about as perfect as it gets.
It’s a dark and nihilistic film, not offering a central character like Margie to point out that “it’s a beautiful day” but rather a character who sits around wondering “what if” and whether or not Chigurh is still out there, and if he will ever stop. Yes it’s dark, but it also contrasts that darkness with beautiful cinematography by the always great Roger Deakins and it’s simply a joy to watch all of these masters of their craft at work.