Sunday, November 11, 2007

No Country for Old Men

“It’s very good that the Coens took the words Cormac wrote and didn’t try to ‘improve’ them,” said Tommy Lee Jones, sounding a lot like the master of understatement he plays in the movie, after a New York Film Festival press screening of No Country for Old Men.

Joel and Ethan Coen were incredibly faithful to Cormac McCarthy’s tale of an unstoppable killer and the good man he has on the run when they adapted it for the screen -- but then you’d expect as much from two such smart cookies. With its near-mythic characters, vivid imagery, spectacular violence, propulsive pacing, and minimalistic dialogue, the novel is nothing if not “cinematic.” Strip out the descriptive passages, collapse a few scenes, and run it through Final Draft and you’ve got yourself a kick-ass screenplay.

What I hadn’t expected was that McCarthy and the Coens would bring out the best in each other.

Both the novelist and the filmmakers take a pretty dim view of people in general, though McCarthy’s bleak pessimism seems to spring from a despairing view of human nature as essentially feral, while the coldness that characterizes much of the Coens’ work feels like the contempt a couple of smart, nerdy boys turn back on the crowd that once froze them out. Merging the two sensibilities in No Country for Old Men brings out the Coens’ often latent humanity and lightens McCarthy’s sometimes oppressively dark tone by a shade or two.

McCarthy’s story takes the Coens back to Texas, where they started their career more than 20 years ago with Blood Simple. But instead of the mouth-breathing yokel caricatures of their clever but snarky debut, this tale features a rich range of fully rounded characters – and a wise, plain as dirt local lawmaker who rivals one of the brothers’ greatest fictional inventions, Fargo’s Marge Gunderson.

At the heart of the story is a killer named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who leaves corpses in his path the way Hansel and Gretel left bread crumbs. Chigurh is a human demon, implacable and unplaceable. Even his name seems to come from nowhere in particular, and so does his anti-stylish Prince Valiant haircut, a look so weird that it has gotten more press than most of the excellent supporting cast.

With his thousand-yard stare and the innocuous-looking but lethal machine he totes everywhere, Chigurh is a nightmare figure, the personification of the horror beginning to be rained down on either side of the Mexican border by dueling drug dealers in 1980, the year of the story. When Chigurh steals drugs and medical instruments and holes up in a hotel room to tend to his own gunshot wound, he brings to mind the Terminator, another unstoppable killing machine.

No Country for Old Men is a warning bell sounded about the damage being wrought by the U.S.-Mexican drug trade and the general degeneration of social codes in a world where, as Bell sees it, everything started going downhill when kids stopped saying “sir” and “ma’am.” Yet this ranks as a relatively hopeful story for McCarthy, whose post-apocalyptic landscapes are sometimes too sere to house a drop of human kindness. Chigurh may be the ultimate bad guy, but he’s facing off against an old-fashioned hero and another good ol’ boy gone slightly bad, and the two give him a tightly paced run for his money.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin in a breakout role) is a welder who stumbles upon the gory aftermath of a gunfight between rival drug runners in the West Texas brush. He impulsively makes off with the abandoned case full of cash, seizing a chance to transform his and his wife’s hardscrabble existence. Jones’ Bell is the sheriff who sizes up the situation and tries to save Moss and regain the money before the killers get both. Smart, capable men who know how to read people and how to get things done, both strive to do the right thing. And both are also married to good women who keep them grounded and soften their hard edges. (The wives are played by Tess Harper, who was born for roles like this, and by Kelly MacDonald, the Scottish star of The Girl in the Café, who plays that girl’s West Texas equivalent with the same quiet strength and a flawless accent.)

In his best role since Lonesome Dove, Jones plays the story’s moral center, drawing on his Texas bona fides, his dust-dry sense of humor, and that retro tough-guy gruffness that got so nicely tweaked in Men in Black. The movie preserves some of his musings as voice-overs to give us his perspective on how much more brutal things are getting in his part of Texas, where life has never been easy.

The story lopes forward relentlessly, as lean and focused as the three men at its core. On the way, it passes through a typical Southwest Texas landscape, including dusty towns with just one main street, gas stations and hotels and diners that haven’t had a face lift in half a century or more, miles and miles of featureless highway, and the Mexican border, that portal to an alternate reality.

The dialogue is pure Texas, too. Full of wry understatement, it’s as much about what isn’t said as what is. “It’s a mess, ain’t it, sheriff?” Bells’ deputy remarks as they survey the scene of one of Chigurh’s killings. “If it ain’t, it’ll do ‘til the mess gets here,” Bell replies.

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