2007 Denver International Film Festival
Though it fails to secure its promised place as a modern masterpiece, the latest from Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, at last sheds that wink-and-a-nod style that has often burdened their previous efforts. In its place is a welcome, and often glorious resignation; as if the cheeky kids of the past finally understood that there are some things you just can’t laugh away. At the film’s core is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), the standard “seen it all” lawman who is more than out of step with the times; he’s even beyond understanding his own humanity. As he says late in the film, “I used to think I could at least some way put things right…I don’t feel that way no more.” He’s stared down murder and waste, and in his time, even sent a few to the graveyard himself, but these days — with the crimes that take place during the course of the story as that final push – he’s no longer able to look evil in the eye. It’s a new breed, yes, but just as likely, it’s a new code, where taking a life is no longer about getting this or defending that, but simply a thrill for its own sake. Where a man can be shot down for no reason whatsoever, except to give another man a moment’s pleasure. Such killings have defined the world from its inception, of course, but for Bell, they’re altogether new, and utterly impossible to handle. What this incomprehensibility is really about, of course, is the grim specter of death, and how we all reach a point in our lives where we come to understand that the world doesn’t have a purpose for us any longer. The title is illustrative: it’s not the times that change, but rather our perception of them as we age, and it becomes all we can do to face, as another character calls it, “the dismal tide.”
The story develops around drugs and money, and the subsequent actions based on a desire for each, but thankfully, plot only half matters this time around, while character and mood strike a delightful, nihilistic balance. None of these events matter, except to those that have to endure them, and for once, such insularity works to illuminate a larger world. Not all of us will come across a desert full of dead bodies, broken glass, bullet casings, and suitcases full of money, but without exception, we’ll all face tough decisions that, even with the passage of time, will seem to highlight our errors. Funny, then, that Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) will have his entire life turn not on the momentary greed that overwhelms good sense, but the overture of decency that sparks the downward spiral. For though Moss makes a wrong turn when he steals the money from the crime scene, he likely would have gotten away with it had he not returned later to bring water to a dying man (who is at last dead when Moss returns). By finding a sliver of humanity amidst grisly mayhem, he is punished, as his pursuer, one Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), is provided the opportunity to lift Moss’ VIN from his empty truck. Without this, the identity of the thief would have gone undiscovered, at least until he could have left Texas behind for good. While the money was rigged with a transponder, it was only the kind that bleeped when the object was nearby. With Moss leaving a trail of dust, Chigurh would have had one hell of a time choosing the right direction in which to follow. It is this bleak, pessimistic worldview — where even the smallest gesture of human kindness means death — that keeps the spirit of the picture alive when it most needs it. Happy endings are for fairy tales.
As for Chigurh, a study in moral bankruptcy if ever there was one, his relentless pursuit of Moss produces a great deal of tension, even if we know damn well what he’ll leave in his wake. He kills, or spares, his victims seemingly without thought; using his weapons (including a cattle stun gun) as more controlled extensions of an unchecked personality. He blows out locks with compressed air, enters rooms, and fires with almost robotic precision, and it is precisely this aura of the unstoppable that so confuses men like Sheriff Bell. All this for a bit of money? Sure, $2 million is more than a bit, and quite enough to change a life, but Chigurh doesn’t strike me as the sort of man who could enjoy a nice meal, let alone the luxury afforded by a shitload of cash. Perhaps that’s what so irks the Bells of the world; that a man like Chigurh doesn’t actually require a conventional motivation, and is using any available excuse to send business the mortician’s way. It’s entirely possible, as with his first onscreen murder of a hapless deputy. While wrestling on the floor, handcuffs digging into the doomed man’s neck, Chigurh is calm, almost serene, and with death comes an orgasmic relief likely not duplicated in any other realm of the man’s life. Take a later scene with Moss’ wife, who pleads, “You don’t have to do this.” Incredulous, Chigurh mocks the very idea that this would be anyone’s reaction, even if it happens to be the most common one he hears. The way he puts it, it’s almost as if the victims are to blame for their own deaths. Given this very narrow context, he’s not altogether incorrect.
Sure, some of No Country for Old Men smells familiar, or even obligatory, and it’s not stretching credibility to suggest that we’ve outgrown the need for any further stories involving the drug trade, but like all movies that grow with time, the particulars often mistakenly overshadow the bigger picture. This is no more a cops and robbers tale than Crime and Punishment, and it would be a fatal error to express any real concern for the final act’s ambiguity. Some have called the resolution confusing, baffling, even infuriating, but it’s unlikely it could have ended any other way, as Sheriff Bell’s final act of impotence (or willing surrender) is telegraphed by the opening monologue, and is, in fact, the only option available to him. This is a man no longer willing to die for a cause, especially in light of life’s unfavorably blurred lines. When he says, “…I think once you stop hearin’ sir and madam the rest is soon to follow,” it’s more than some fogey railing against the “kids today.” After all, small, seemingly insignificant rejections of civility coarsen the culture over time, eventually leading to open hostility. True, manners can often mask a deeper rejection of morality (think of “Southern hospitality” amidst slavery and segregation), but on a philosophical level, knowing how to talk to each other often allows for a rejection of the very violence Bell and his kind can no longer fathom. Though the story takes place in the West Texas of 1980, it need not be bound by places and dates to conclude that we’ve run out of a need for heroes. As Leonard Cohen once said, “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded, Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed…Everybody knows that the war is over, Everybody knows that the good guys lost.” All welcome the dismal tide.