In No Country for Old Men, the newest movie from Joel and Ethan Coen, there’s a sign on Sheriff Ed Tom Bell’s (Tommy Lee Jones) wall that says “Learn To Relax.” Like many Coen protagonists, it’s a task the laconic lawman has clearly mastered, and with every word and action, Bell encourages others to follow his lead. But unlike Fargo’s Marge Gunderson or the Dude in The Big Lewbowski, his penchant for relaxation isn’t merely a lazy, easy-going regional affect. No, this time out, it’s a defense mechanism, a statement of resignation as an old man looks upon the terror and tragedy of the world and wonders what to do.
How to deal with the presence of evil in the world is the question that drives the film, and Bell’s door sign provides just one possible answer. One character in the film, facing potential death, opts to play along with a killer’s coin-toss game; another turns down the same offer, refusing to allow the vagaries of a coin toss to control her fate. When Bell’s deputy, Wendell (Garrett Dillahunt), chuckles at a description of a grim murder scene, then tries to refrain, Bell tells him not to worry. “That’s all right. I laugh myself sometimes. There ain’t a whole lot else you can do.”
That statement, however, is more than just one response to No Country’s central problem. It’s also about as concise a summary of the Coen brothers’ attitude toward the world, as you’re likely to find. For two decades, the filmmakers have crafted offbeat cinematic gems out of the absurdity and hilarity in human foibles and follies. They are tough to pin down: alternately dark and funny, bleak and goofy, and, with the way they subtly prize homespun wisdom and local tradition, even underhandedly conservative in a broad cultural sense. Even their weakest films are curiosities, and many of their films — Fargo, The Big Lewbowski, Raising Arizona — are now minor classics with dedicated cult followings. But with No Country for Old Men, they’ve built upon their twenty year history and created what is surely the finest film of the year so far, and their first true masterpiece.
The story, based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, is deceptively simple. In the dusty flatlands of the Texas desert, a hunter named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon a mess of dead bodies, pickup trucks, and drugs, as well as a suitcase full of cash. Knowing full well what trouble it could bring, he takes the case anyway — and trouble is just what he gets. The rest of film takes form of a chase as Moss is pursued by those who want their money back: a gang of Mexicans, a dandy assassin played by Woody Harrelson, and a freakish, demonic hired killer named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Meanwhile, Bell and Wendell track its aftershocks, following the path death and destruction while futilely trying to make sense of it all.
It sounds like an ordinary thriller, but it’s anything but. Indeed, it’s often distinctive and strange, bearing plenty of reminders that it only could have been made by the Coens. Often, No Country for Old Men plays like a cinematic greatest hits album, continuously quoting and referencing their previous films. The opening monologue, performed by Jones and set over a series of barren Texas landscapes, recalls the introduction to The Big Lewbowski. A scene in which a local detective finds a murder victim alongside a stranded vehicle is straight out of Fargo, as are the characters of Bell and Wendell, another wry local cop who explains the ways of the world to his naïve assistant. Chigurh is a flesh-and-blood analog to the fever-dream biker who haunted Nicholas Cage in Raising Arizona, even taking similar potshots at small animals along the side of the road.
But despite the mashup quality, there’s nothing derivative about the film. Instead, it’s a marvel. Every performance is riveting. As Moss, Josh Brolin bears a strange resemblance to Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, another silent, determined man with unclear motivations. “Things happen. Can’t take ‘em back,” he muses, more or less summing up his philosophy, but that’s about as much direct insight into the man as the film provides. Tommy Lee Jones provides the story’s emotional center, and fully makes up for his moping, hang-dog turn in In the Valley of Elah. Here, he’s a well-aged product of his environment. His verbal patter is as dry as the desert earth he walks on (“It’s a mess, ain’t it Sheriff?” Wendell asks at a murder scene, and Bell replies, “If it ain’t, it’ll due till the mess gets here.”), and his creased, wrinkled faces seems to have developed fault lines to match the craggy hills around him.
It’s Bardem, though, as the moppy-haired Chigurh, that makes the strongest impression. Lurking through the movie with a silenced shotgun and an air-powered cattle gun, he’s the embodiment of evil, a menacing, emotionless mystery whose power derives from his unwillingness to be accountable to anyone. Separated from the rules and customs of civil society, he is totally free, the film suggests, but also totally empty. It’s his parade of violence that drives the film, his moral void that is its central worry, and his eerie demeanor that makes it such an effective thriller. Silent and stealthy, he’s even scary in his socks.
Behind the camera, cinematographer Roger Deakins turns in effortlessly breathtaking work. Sturdy and quiet, like the Texans around which it revolves, the film makes exemplary use of silence, space, and distance. From the opening shots of the dry Texas plains to the long sequences without either dialog or music, the sparseness suggests Chigurh’s malevolence represents an expanse of human behavior too wide, too empty, and too desolate to fully comprehend.
But that doesn’t stop the characters from trying, in vain, to process the senseless violence that surrounds them. As the film draws to a close, Bell and another local lawman fresh from the scene of a massacre mull the bloody mess they’ve just witnessed. “The money and the drugs. It’s just beyond everything. What does it mean? What is it leading to?” the other sheriff asks, and then answers the question himself. “It’s the tide. It’s the dismal tide. It’s not the one thing.” In No Country for Old Men, it’s never the one thing, and that’s a significant part of its complexity and power. Terrible men walk the world, and there’s never anything one can do except try to relax, or maybe flip a coin, and resign oneself to the notion that evil, like the plains of Texas, is a barren wilderness that can never be mapped or understood.
–Peter Suderman is associate editor of Doublethink. He blogs at www.theamericanscene.com.