Ten years ago, movies like this didn’t win Best Picture. They lost to safe, happy movies like Forrest Gump and Shakespeare in Love. By their usual standards, the Academy voters would have gone with Michael Clayton, the safe and respectable choice. In the last couple of years, however, the Academy has been on a serious indie kick, and the Coen Brothers’ dark character study is about as indie as mainstream movies get. Was the best film of 2007? Perhaps, perhaps not. At least this makes up for Fargo losing out to The English Patient.
The setup has been seen in a thousand B-grade action movies. In 1980, a poor Texan, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), works as a welder and lives in a double-wide with his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald). One day while out hunting deer, he stumbles on the scene of a drug deal gone horribly wrong. Bodies of men and dogs litter the desert. Moss, a Vietnam vet, tracks down the guy who crawled away and died with $2 million in a satchel next to him. In the worst decision since Captain Smith ignored the ice warnings and ordered full speed ahead, Moss takes the money with him.
His biggest problem is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a hired hit man for the drug dealers who seems more interested in punishing Moss for the effrontery of stealing the money than in actually getting it back. Chigurh (sort of pronounced like “Sugar”) makes it clear he’s both dangerous and more than a little crazy in the film’s opening scene, escaping from police custody by brutally strangling a deputy with his handcuffs. With an untraceable accent and a wardrobe and hairstyle totally out of place (and time), Chigurh remains an enigmatic force of nature for the entire film.
Trying to chase down both men is Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a local sheriff for whom being a lawman is as much a family tradition as it is a calling. We’ve seen Jones play superficially similar roles before but Ed is not an action hero type of cop. He’s content to sit back with the newspaper in the diner and spin folksy wisdom while his deputy (Garret Dillahunt) does most of the work. It would be easy to compare him to the Coens’ other celebrated example of small town law enforcement, Marge Gunderson from Fargo, but the similarity is equally superficial. Ed seems less interested in solving the crimes than in simply understanding them.
While the setup may be familiar, the Coen Brothers’ script, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, doesn’t trod down any familiar paths, but wanders off into the heat of the Texas summer and asks us to come along. They have boiled down the story to its basic essentials, the consequences of one reckless action by Llewelyn Moss, a sensible man who’s too proud to do the sensible thing.
The production team does an incredible job of conjuring the flat, hot, dusty environs of West Texas in the early eighties, even if we do see a couple of businesses in the background that weren’t even in Texas at the time sporting their modern-day signage. I know goofs like that are trivial but they would be more forgivable if they weren’t so obvious to me, and I’m not someone who usually notices such things.
Javier Bardem has gotten the biggest share of attention for his performance and rightfully so. Not only is it hard to play someone with no clear motivations or any kind of inner life, he has to do it sporting a haircut that ought to inspire giggles anywhere but a Dorothy Hamill highlight film. It doesn’t because from the first frame he’s in, Bardem is able to inspired a sense of unspecified dread, even before he almost decapitates that deputy with his handcuffs.
Despite his L.A.-based celebrity roots, Josh Brolin makes it seem like he just strolled onto the set out of the trailer park in which his character lives. As his wife, Kelly Macdonald is even more impressive when she opens her mouth in an interview on the DVD and reveals a Scottish accent thicker than week-old gravy.
Balancing these out a little is Woody Harrelson as Wells, a bounty hunter sent after Chigurh. Sounding like he’s talking through a mouthful of marbles, Harrelson’s performance feels mannered and false, not jibing with the authentic texture of the film around him.
Despite the action-movie setup and considerable body count, the overall feeling from No Country for Old Men is one of sadness, not thrills. A more pedestrian movie would have ended with a showdown between Moss, Chigurh and Sheriff Bell. This film ends, well, much differently and that ending has inspired some controversy. I think those unhappy with the resolution came to No Country expecting a much different story, perhaps a more conventional story. The ending, a melancholy rumination on the human cost of violence, is perfect, however, for the film that Coen Brothers actually made.