In critical circles it is often mentioned that foreigners often have the best perspective to make films about American life and history. This argument will cite Polanski’s Chinatown; Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly; Wenders’s Paris, Texas; and countless others as proof of the notion that American-ness is something best considered from afar. However, there are two boys from Minneapolis who throw a little kink into that tried and true theory.
With No Country For Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen have further developed their tireless effort to understand what it is to be a citizen of this qcountry and, duly, of the world. In the most basic sense, the film is about chasing the American dream, represented here, as a bag full of money. There are three men going after a piece of the pie: the everyman, the lawman, and the (not so) dark other. How about we rewind and do that again with more semi-colons: Llewelyn Moss, played with indomitable timbre by Josh Brolin; Ed Tom Bell, the once-and-future narrator offered up by Tommy Lee Jones and the deep pockets beneath his weary eyes; and Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem, who will get his own paragraph should you care to read on.
It’s not that women aren’t in need of some of that pie, this just isn’t their story. As an adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel, it should come as no surprise that American masculinity takes center stage.
Let’s take this a step further. This is more than a cinematic study in Americana. At it’s core, this is a film critiquing American film. At once Scorsese, the next minute Tarantino, and popping into David Lynch for spats at a time, the film winds its way through familiar territory only to improve upon the groundwork laid by so many of our most talented auteurs. Sometimes the Coen brothers drop us down to B-movie stylings, other times they ramp us up to art house confusion. After all, what is this story? What is this movie? It is a monster movie, it is a crime thriller, it is a chase movie, it is a period piece, and it is a western. As usual, the brothers ask us to set genre aside and enter their world where strains of cinema all happen simultaneously. It is this logic that allowed them to meld Greek tragedy, the early twentieth century American south, and modern pop culture successfully in 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Each of their films can be broken down similarly, but there just isn’t the time. Back to now.
Javier Bardem has created a haunting and wholly original villain in Anton Chigurh. With the face of a Greek tragedy mask and the voice of Alpha 60 (sometimes Hal 9000, pick your poison), he lumbers across the screen winning our heart and tearing it out in alternating frames. No time is wasted on the development of his evil nature. Rather than ease the audience into his purely evil nature the brothers flash right into it mere seconds after he first appears on screen. His ethnicity, seemingly hispanic, is never discusses or highlighted. Racism shows up as tiny blips throughout the film, but never in reference to his character. You need to know one thing abut Mr. Chigurh; he is a deadly killer and nothing else. If you added one or two quirks to the great white in Jaws, he would be the result.
Josh Brolin plays the wannabe cowboy, a man whose fighting words are twice as glorious as his actions. Ultimately, his efforts are commendable, but he does not belong in the underworld of border drug trafficking. What’s so wonderful about his character is that we always want him to get out of the hairy situations he puts himself in, yet we never question his judgement in allowing himself to get into them in the first place. He is an ordinary man willingly thrown into an extraordinary situation, however, this boy-scout is no match for Chigurh’s Raskalnikov-on-crack mentality. Watching the two hover around each other, rarely on screen mind you, becomes a delicate ballet of wits and collateral damage.
Speaking of ordinary men, let us not forget Tommy Lee Jones playing the soon-to-be-retired sheriff. Every western needs a sheriff, and this one spends much less time at the O.K. Corrall than any of his onscreen predecessors. Rather, he sits in a coffee shop offering up Tiresias like narration to the events happening in his town. Perhaps he is the old man that this country has no room for, this country being replaced by boys with “green hair and a bone in his nose”. It is through his back-in-my-day thoughts that we see a new wild west emerge. The film takes place in 1980, the arguable beginning of the information age. The sheriff is a relic, a man who detects with his gut and his hands. Those who will replace him will check everything in computers, spend more time at desks, and work more and more with the federal government to curb local violence. In the end, the violence will remain, and it breaks his heart that he cannot adapt and become a vital citizen of the future.
When all is said and done, the Coen brothers will probably be remembered for infusing the cinema with a stunning new visual palette through the adoption of cutting edge technologies. While the Camerons and the Spielbergs of the world have worked to create worlds out of thin air through the advent of digital imagery, the Coen brothers have been using the very same technology to better focus their ideas. And this time out, it would seem as though they’ve perfected heir revolutionary use of color to create a truly vibrant work of art. If each frame could be laid out in a row, the result would be something worthy of a spot at the Louvre. Finally, someone knows how to use the 2.35:1 aspect ratio! This ain’t a film you can watch pan and scan kids. Kudos to Roger Deakins for his usual powerhouse photography.
And not to dwell on the technical mastery of this film too long, but the soundtrack is about three times as amazing as the camerawork, and that means a lot. Craig Berkey, a new and hopefully permanent member of the Coen cabal, has woven a truly phenomenal sound mix that, for me, was the real star of the film. The diegetic tension is mixed with sounds that could only be described as aural mood enhancers. Throw in Carter Burwell’s sparse music cues, and you have a mix that will make your ears do somersaults.
In the end, No Country For Old Men is a wonderful film, but I don’t want to overplay how great it is, if you can believe that. The film has received such a positive international reception because there is a dearth of such technical mastery out there. Ultimately, all movies should be made like this, with the same care and maturity that the brothers have been tempering for the past two decades. Until filmmakers start getting hip to that, then yeah, No Countryâ€¦ is going to top many peoples’ lists.
And it really is that good.