The Coens deliver a brutal—and brilliant—portrait of Texas.
The dog will haunt your nightmares, like no movie monster you’ve seen before.
He doesn’t actually appear in Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 best-seller, No Country for Old Men. But here he comes, barreling across the West Texas landscape in Joel and Ethan Coen’s film version, a snarling pit bull unleashed by a pair of drug dealers to chase after Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a Vietnam vet who has taken off with a briefcase of cash that the dealers want for themselves. Moss stumbles across the plain, bleeding from a bullet wound. The dog refuses to relent. Moss manages to make it across a river. The dog dives right in after him, paddling his way to the other bank. The chase continues, more harrowing and morbidly funny at every turn, until the dog takes an astonishing, acrobatic leap through the air, his jaw pitched directly at Moss’s head. Moss turns to confront his fate, and then—well, to say any more would be to spoil one of the many pleasures of one of the year’s best films.
Cormac McCarthy fans and Coen brothers fans alike can rejoice: The early hype about No Country for Old Men turns out to be entirely deserved. The film, which was shot in 2006 in Marfa and parts of New Mexico, premiered earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival; it didn’t win any prizes but was nonetheless widely regarded as the sibling filmmakers’ strongest work in years. This month it finally arrives in American theaters, where its achievement should be even more appreciated. The Coens’ screenplay is remarkably faithful to McCarthy’s story, a tense thriller that doubles as an elegy for the changing face of Texas circa 1980, where cowboys and Indians have given way to drug dealers and cold-blooded murderers. But the directors have also imbued the film with their own trademark sensibility, a dry comic bite that neatly tempers McCarthy’s more pretentious flights of literary fancy. The result is a feat of alchemy: a film that somehow feels truer to the spirit of McCarthy than McCarthy’s novel, and one that brings the Coens ingeniously full circle, right back to the Texas-made thriller Blood Simple (see “Gory Days”), which launched their careers 23 years ago.
Set in a series of desolate one-stoplight towns near the U.S.-Mexico border, No Country for Old Men begins with a vicious murder, as a laconic man named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) turns on the deputy (Zach Hopkins) who has just arrested him. Grinding the steel links of his handcuffs straight through the deputy’s jugular, Chigurh sends blood spurting everywhere and sets a brutal, nonstop chase in motion. It so happens that Chigurh has been separated from a briefcase containing $2.4 million, after a heroin deal with a group of Mexicans goes sour. The decent-hearted but greedy Moss has the case—he stumbled upon it during a hunting expedition—but doesn’t realize that there’s a tiny tracking device inside. Others are after the money, including the owners of that pesky pit bull and a wonderful Woody Harrelson as a man representing the Dallas corporate outfit that funded the drug deal. Trying to stop these men before too much damage is done is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), an aging lawman who looks upon the increasingly violent nature of his once-peaceable community with profound despair.
Much like Blood Simple, No Country for Old Men is, at heart, a marvelously supple game of cat and mouse. Moss tries to remain one step ahead of Chigurh, who will stop at nothing, and spare no innocent life, in his quest to get the money back. (His weapon of choice is a captive bolt pistol, which blows doorknob-size holes into his victims.) And while the film can be read as another pitiless, acerbic portrait of amorality lurking beneath the banal surfaces of rural Texas, à la Blood Simple, the Coens have expanded their worldview considerably. The Texas we see here is a melting pot—white and Hispanic, rich and poor, criminal and professional—that has boiled over and formed a cesspool of moral rot; it’s a stand-in for an entire nation where everyone is relentlessly pursuing his self-interest. Resisting McCarthy’s gruff-old-man pessimism with a bit of their more glib world-weariness, the directors never fully give in to the defeat and hopelessness that hang in the air. But they never let us brush off the horror either, the way they do, say, with the kidnapping-gone-awry in Fargo or the mobster murders in Miller’s Crossing. For the first time in their careers, the Coens have delivered a movie that nails you square in the gut.
No Country for Old Men carries on too long, and the Coens probably should have excised one or two of Bell’s philosophical voice-overs, which hammer home McCarthy’s elegiac themes too aggressively. Purists may also balk at how little of the movie was actually shot in Texas (the production reportedly spent only ten days here). But it would take a laser-focused eye to figure out which parts were filmed where. That’s because the Coens so vividly understand the look, sounds, and faces of our border towns—and especially how these towns have steadily changed over the past few decades. Consider the scene in which Chigurh wends his way to a filling station in Sheffield and then taunts the owner (Gene Jones), who mistakenly tries to make conversation with this sociopath. With his soft-spoken drawl and ruddy complexion, Jones is a picture postcard of old-school Texas; Chigurh, as sadistically played by Bardem, represents the leering, unyielding face of change. When Chigurh asks the gas station owner to call a coin toss that will decide whether or not he is murdered, we realize that an entire way of small-town life—sleepy, genteel, polite to a fault—is up for grabs.
Little wonder you can’t shake the image of that pit bull racing across the frame: No Country for Old Men is a muscular and merciless beast; it bares its teeth and isn’t afraid to bite.
Gory Days: Blood Simple revisited.
If you haven’t seen the Coens’ audacious 1984 neo-noir in a couple of decades, the release of No Country for Old Men provides the perfect excuse to take another look. Set in an unnamed small town (the film was shot in and around Austin), Blood Simple follows a cuckolded bar owner (Dan Hedaya) who hires a wheels-off detective (M. Emmet Walsh) to murder his wife (Frances McDormand) and her lover (John Getz)—only to have the private dick violently turn the tables. It’s a remarkably assured debut, patient, elegantly constructed, and very bloody. It also features a veritable catalog of Coen flourishes that you’ll see echoed in No Country: the starkly photographed Texas landscape, the nuggets of down-home wisdom spoken in voice-over (“What I know about is Texas, and down here, you’re on your own”), and even a sturdy canine who plays a critical supporting role. One caveat: Don’t bother with the 2000 director’s cut more widely available on DVD; it fails to improve on the original.