Dir/scr: Joel & Ethan Coen. US. 2007.122 mins
On paper the combination of the Coen brothers and the tough, sinewy prose of Pulitzer Prize-winner Cormac McCarthy should be the stuff of cinematic legend. The reality is a more ambiguous proposition; a bleak, Biblical saga of crime and retribution that by the sheer nature of its execution frustrates expectations of tidy resolutions and happy endings.
The elegiac evocation of a changing American heartland in moral meltdown is deftly handled but there are reservations about pacing and balance that prevent the film from achieving the greatness that sometimes seems within its grasp. It is almost as if the Coen brothers had been overawed by the source material and there is a kind of reverence and emotional chill that may limit the viability of the film for mainstream audiences. No Country For Old Men is guaranteed to attract a healthy audience on the basis of the track record of those involved, respect for the novel and critical support which will combine to create the potential for a more commercially rewarding Coen brothers venture than recent comedies Intolerable Cruelty or The Ladykillers.
No Country For Old Men finds its soul in Roger Deakins striking images of the desolate landscapes around the Tex-Mex border that are filled with blinding light, brooding skies and dark foreboding. The novel was set in 1980 but the film is never so explicit, setting a mood that is poised between the fatalism of post-World War Two film noir and the dusty, end-of-an-era feeling that permeates the best films of Sam Peckinpah.
The story follows the fate of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a man who does the wrong thing for all the right reasons. Stumbling across the bloody aftermath of a drugs deal, he finds himself in the possession of over $2million in cash. He believes he can use the money to provide a better future for his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) if they live long enough to spend it. His fate lies in the hands of two men. Remorseless psychopath Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) recognises no moral boundaries and will stop at nothing to get his man or his money. He will decide if someone lives or dies on the toss of a coin. The side of the angels is represented by weary sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a man baffled by a world that seems to have lost all regard for decency and compassion.
Adapting the novel to accommodate the demands of the screen, the Coens tip the balance towards the narrative conventions of a chase thriller and slightly away from the moral battleground that lent the book such power and resonance. There are ample moments of tension and suspense but also more opportunity to perceive some of the conveniences and contrivances.
There is a positively chilling performance from Javier Bardem as an embodiment of human evil to match Dennis Hopper’s memorable turn in Blue Velvet. The film is marbled with shocking violence and bone dry black humour not least in the nicely observed eccentricities of the bit part characters who populate the fringes of the story. Bardem’s dominant performance ensures that the devil has all the best moments in No Country and perhaps that is the point. Tommy Lee Jones is perfectly cast as the weary, puzzled representative of civil duty and the human instinct to do the right thing but he is absent for long stretches of the story, weakening his status as the moral balance to Chigurh.
There also seems insufficient space for the concept of love and the strength of the relationship between the fugitive Llewelyn and his beloved Carla Jean. A surprise piece of cast, Scots actress Kelly Macdonald is effective as Texas gal Carla Jean and brings a warmth and personality to the part that makes the most of her relatively brief screen time. A little more of that humanity might have engaged the heart as well the mind and lent a greater emotional impact to a film that sometimes drifts when it should grip and leaves the viewer pensive rather than completely satisfied by what it has achieved.
Joel and Ethan Coen
From the novel by Cormac McCarthy
Tommy Lee Jones