Balloons don’t blow up into funny shapes in the Coen Brothers’ latest film, No Country For Old Men, and its narrative direction isn’t fairly self-explanatory. To watch it is to gaze at the ominous, chilling, quiet and pitch-black flipside of their 1987 film Raising Arizona and be haunted by the penetrating, unflinching stare it gives back in return.
Blending bile-black humor, landscapes stained by blood and the slow decay of dirty deals gone bad, Country seems to most strongly resemble 1996’s Fargo. It’s as observational of language and behavior in a way that uncannily alternates between human horror and humor. And, adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, it would be as justified in earning a Best Picture Oscar nomination.
But in the way the Arizona quints served as springboard to comic commentary about social limbo and existential angst, so do all the drugs, money and guns in Country’s cat-and-mouse conceit.
Its scurrying rodent is, like Arizona’s H.I., an American dreamer living in a trailer. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is a Vietnam vet and Texas hunter who, in one desolate stretch of Rio Grande land, finds numerous bodies, a truck-bed full of drugs, a satchel with millions of dollars and a gut-shot survivor begging for “agua.” Moss takes the money, but nagging nighttime karma sends him back with a jug of water, a poor decision that marks him as prey for a killer who defines feral.
Even if he didn’t remove his shoes at one point to silently pad after his prey, Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh is a clearly defined cat. Like Leonard Smalls in Arizona, he’s a sadistic, violent mercenary who seems borne from a plain that’s not our own. Beneath the bangs of this murderer’s pageboy haircut sit the terrifyingly empty eyes of a man content to live, or end, life, by the simple principles of a coin toss. Preferring a pressurized cattle gun and large, silenced firearms, Chigurh tracks Moss and the money to numerous border hotels for a series of claustrophobic confrontations.
Expectedly so, the Coens put their own cinematic chokehold on these scenes with masterful sound design, cinematography and slingshot pacing; amid your held breath, you won’t notice the lack of a musical score in scenes that play with as much lean, violent intensity as Blood Simple.
And, as usual, they allow performers to do more than poke through. Brolin is a study in silent determinism, evading gunrunners, police and even a fiercely loyal pit bull. And Bardem stamps such strong psychopathic idiosyncrasy onto the seemingly unstoppable Chigurh that it’s career-defining work.
However, Moss is too broadly drawn to emerge as a hero to really pull for, and Chigurh far too interesting and complex to stir a need for vengeance. The film’s real lead is its old-dog sheriff on the side, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). Bell is tracking Moss at the insistence of Moss’s worrywart wife (Kelly Macdonald), and slowly learns Chigurh’s legacy of leaving bodies behind. Bell’s always battled bad people, but never ones with such frightening moral lawlessness and just-because motivation as Chigurh.
Jones eloquently displays how capable he is of a true performance and not just fast, drawling talk. Bell’s is a generational grapple with displacement in a world spinning toward anarchy that he’s afraid to understand lest it infect him, and Jones shows Bell’s hesitancy in all his face’s wearied lines. He figures heavily in a finale bound to frustrate some for its deviation from conventionality. It might take time to digest, but to again paraphrase Arizona, this great movie sure do take a bite.