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Advanced Review: The Coen Brothers Are Back with No Country for Old Men

Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer

ImageThe Brothers Coen are probably two of the most inscrutable artists we’ve got, working on some kind of closed-circuit mind-meld we admirers can only wish we had access to. How they come up with their oftentimes perfect, unexpected movies remains a source of mystery. They’re almost completely inarticulate in interviews—sometimes coming off as borderline-autistic—obviously having no interest in sharing what’s going on in their heads, how they come up with their ideas, what it all means to them. They’re content to let their movies speak for themselves, and give the impression that what you see is pretty much what you get. Secret messages smuggled into their films—meant to transmute your soul to a more perfect state and provide grist for scholars to write theses on—is not part of their agenda. Improvisation is not needed on their sets, because everything is already put together just so. No actor yet born has been great enough to come up on the fly with the kind of mannered, fiercely period and local dialogue they give to their characters. Even frequent collaborators, like master DP Roger Deakins, only says that by the time he shows up, they’ve got the entire movie figured out, story-boarded to the last detail. They tell him what they want during pre-production meetings, then no more discussion is needed.

This is part of what’s made their recent slump so dispiriting. Since nobody really knows the first thing about what’s going on these Minnesota-bred geniuses’ curly heads of hair–how they think, what kind of restraints they work under, what their limitations and pet obsessions are—we can’t even resort to armchair psychology to diagnose what’s gone wrong. And something very obviously has. You can pinpoint it where you like it, but there’s no denying that they’ve stopped making perfect movies. Personally, I’ve felt like we haven’t gotten a REAL Coen Brothers movie since The Big Lebowski. Although I admired the meticulous world they created in O Brother, the story and characters left me cold, unengaged. And everything after that has basically been a wash—The Man Who Wasn’t There, Intolerable Cruelty, and The Ladykillers. Up to and including Lebowski, the Coen brothers seemed like aliens from another planet, they were so frickin’ talented (Miller’s Crossing is my personal favorite, but you could make a sound argument for any of the movies they made before O Brother). Then they fell to earth, victims of the ridiculously high standards they had set.

So it gives me great pleasure to report the news that the Coen brothers are back. No Country for Old Men is an impressive return to form.  It’s a blood-soaked, almost Biblical thriller filled with pitch-perfect local dialogue and landscapes (in this case, the barren desert of West Texas), and features at its center another character who’ll surely go down in the annals of film history. The Coens have contributed a lot of unforgettable characters in their day, and Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh instantly joins the ranks of the Dude and Jerry Lundegaard at the top. Rather than an ineffectual nice guy who’s gotten into a situation above his head, Chigurh is one of the great psychopathic killer characters in movie history—and if that compliment sounds outsized, it’s meant to be.

ImageThe plot is simplicity itself: a man (Josh Brolin) finds a bagful of money at the scene of a drug deal gone homicidally awry in the desert, grabs it, then goes on the run from a cold-blooded killer (Bardem). An assassin hired to kill the first (Woody Harrelson, not looking as crazy and burnt-out as he has in the last couple years) and a small-town, aging Sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones, who seemingly disappeared for years and is now suddenly in everything again) chase them both. Although No Country is an unmistakable callback to the Coens’ first movie, the hard-boiled, also Texas-set Blood Simple, a lot of the credit for the movie and the Coen’s resurgence has to go to one of the grand old men of American literature, Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy wrote the novel upon which this movie is based, and by all reports it’s a very faithful adaptation (I’ve never read the book). McCarthy—and this book in particular—is a no-brainer for the Coens to adapt once you think about it. Both are singular artists who paint with a palette of horrific, surprising bloodshed and dialogue stuffed with idiosyncratic word choices and deadpan humor (McCarthy’s humor is usually so deadpan it takes a seismograph to detect it, but it’s there). 

There’s almost no music in the film (there might not even be any, but I couldn’t swear to it). It’s mostly tension-filled scenes set in Podunk hotel rooms, Chigurh killing his way across the desolate highways of West Texas, and Jones rhapsodizing in a deep Texan twang to whoever will listen about how he doesn’t understand the new, more savage violence he now faces in his job. This being McCarthy, and the title being what it is, the main theme involves Jones realizing that this violence is not, in fact, new—it’s always existed in the kind of savage wastes where he lives, and will never die out. That’s the grand theme of McCarthy’s greatest novels (Blood Meridian and The Road), and the Coens faithfully translate it to the big screen. Sometimes, in fact, you might find yourself wishing they had been a little less faithful—the third act of the movie follows more thematic rather than plot-driven turns. Major points of action occur off-screen, and small moments between seemingly peripheral characters are focused on instead. Watching the Coens—the maestros of the thriller form—veer away from the out-of-control locomotive plot they set in motion during the first two acts to follow McCarthy’s more elegiac muse is certainly strange to see. The movie sounds a curiously dissonant, fading chord in the last act, and gives you the feeling there’s too much to swallow in one viewing.

Could the Coens have gone off-page and given us a more classically “cinematic” third act to No Country for Old Men? Undoubtedly. But we’ve seen them do that before. And while you can usually contort the kind of potboiler material Hollywood filmmakers usually have to adapt, you fuck with the work of Cormac McCarthy at your own peril. Let’s just enjoy the latest diamond they’ve uncovered and polished with their laser-sharp film sensibilities for what it is, and trust that time and multiple viewings (which I already can’t wait to get started on) will reveal that they made the right choice. And let’s hope their second wind lasts for a long, long time.