Monday, November 26, 2007

Movie Review: No Country for Old Men Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

An element of film directing that brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have perfected is the global art of dialogue. This is complete film conversation from the choice written material to screen writing to regional dialect and colloquialism to an almost magically appropriate choice of actors to employ said regional dialects and colloquialisms—The whole enchilada. In this realm, the Coens have no peers, not Peckinpah, not Coppola, not even master Scorsese can touch them.

The proof of the Coens’ ear for regional natural speech is no better illustrated in the Irish-American brogue of Miller’s Crossing, the interrogative density of the North Central States in Fargo, and the mouthful-of-grits-‘n-greens salt pork drawl of pre-Depression era Mississippi in O Brother, Where Art Thou. In each of these films, the Coens carefully choreographed speech patterns and usage that seemed to make them sound more than authentic without making them sound stereotypical. The result is crystalline satire expertly clothed in the patois of the chosen region.

Add to the these films the brother’s adaptation of Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy’s story of fate and destruction, No Country for Old Men. Deriving its title from the opening line of William Butler Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium,” No Country for Old Men embraces its setting of the unforgiving Texas-Mexico border region circa 1980. There is no mistaking this dialect and accent; it is 100% Texas. It is a sound of a strange alchemy of American Southern cotton bowl stirred with the piquant chilies of Mexico and spiritual cadences of Native America with heavy hints of the anvil dissonances of Germany and points east.

In the audio-narrated book version of No Country for Old Men, actor Tom Stechschulte (Fields of Freedom [2006], The Manchurian Candidate [2004]) expertly dispatches the narration with a clean efficiency, capturing the panorama of Texas-Tejano linguistics. It is challenging enough for a single performer like Stechschulte to adopt an array of characters. This challenge multiplied for the director filling these multiple roles with just the right actors—and this is what the Coens do best. In the film, McCarthy’s and by proxy, the Coens’ Hamlet is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). He is a 25-year veteran sheriff from a long line of veteran sheriffs who haunted the Texas border for better than a combined 100 years. He acts as the nominal narrator, the soliloquist for McCarthy’s hot, stale breath of Hell.

The leitmotif of No Country for Old Men is the chance of a coin toss. The act represents both the real and metaphorical existence of chance. In the case of the plot, the chance that Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) would come upon a Mexican heroin exchange gone bad whereby he stumbles upon a half dozen dead bodies and 2.4 million dollars in cash. Moss purloins the cash, setting in motion the employment by an un-named executive (Stephen Root) of one Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Chigurh is a very bad man, who, at the very lease is a socio-psychopath impossibly far beyond any form of rehabilitation, which naturally makes him a perfect assassin.

As a story antagonist, Chigurh is a curious blend of a fetishless Hannibal Lecter and Sam Peckinpah’s Bennie from Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. He fancies himself a God-like philosopher as exampled in his coin toss for the life of an unknowing gas station attendant, which the attendant wins, but a character later looses, along with that character’s life. Chigurh possesses an obscene code of keeping his promises and doing exactly what he says. He makes it a practice of leaving no witnesses to identify him. He is a perfect killing machine, employing an elaborately suppressed shotgun and pistol and a pneumatic penetrating captive bolt pistol usually employed in livestock slaughter.

Juxtaposed to Chigurh is Bell, who is world weary for having seen everything, wearing this fatigue with the patina that very little surprising him. Jones’ perfectly paced dead-pan border delivery in this blackest of black comedies should provide him his second Academy Award® nomination (after winning his first in the Fugitive [1993]). Author McCarthy reserved his finest dialogue for Bell in the book and the Coens’ have preserved this for Jones in the film. In the film, Bell is intent on protecting Moss and his young wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) but in the end saves neither. In common, both Chigurh and Bell are focused professionals. Chigurh’s focus is maniacal and Bell’s matter-of-fact. The protagonist and antagonist never cross paths physically to meet, but continually pass through the same spaces. Ultimately, they float apart as before, and Bell realizes that where he lives is no country for old men.

An unsolicited suggestion: read the book and see the film, this way the reader/viewer gets the best of both worlds—the best in American Fiction Writing and the best in American Film Making.


Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell
Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh
Josh Brolin as Llewelyn Moss
Woody Harrelson as Carson Wells
Kelly Macdonald as Carla Jean Moss
Tess Harper as Loretta Bell
Barry Corbin as Ellis
Stephen Root as Man who hires Wells
Beth Grant as Agnes, Carla Jean's Mother

This review was first published in

© Copyright, C. Michael Bailey, 2007