Tom and Jerry, cheese and crackers, Torvill and Dean… Some things are meant to go together. Add to that list the Coen Brothers and Cormac McCarthy, the ravaged, despairing, intensely violent landscapes so pitilessly evoked in the latter’s novels dovetailing with the bleak worldview exhibited in the scintillating crime thrillers of the former.
As magnificent as McCarthy’s same-titled 2005 novel undoubtedly is, he’s written better books, with Blood Meridian (optioned by Ridley Scott) and The Road (John The Proposition Hillcoat) putting the 74-year-old in the front rank of modern American authors. But it’s No Country For Old Men that most perfectly fits the Coens, its keen sense of time and place, lowlife characters, Jenga plotting, blacker-than-black humour and colourful, naturalistic dialogue (“It’s a mess, ain’t it?”… “Hell, if it ain’t it will do ’til the mess gits here”) recalling the brothers’ neo-noirs. Fargo is the particularly obvious reference point, and not just because the plot of No Country involves a nobody chancing a crime to become a somebody only to find himself alarmingly out of his depth, pursued by implacable killers and a small-town sheriff given to homespun philosophy.
No, a more pertinent comparison is that No Country, for all its bloodlust and desperation, shares Fargo’s world-weary humanity. And so it is that the Coens’ 12th feature emerges bulletproof to the tuts and clucks too often aimed at their work. Glib? No. Smug? Not a chance. Drawn from cinema at the expense of life? Not this time – No Country balances a love of genre tics, invigorating technique and tense, terse set-pieces with a deep affection for people and an unswerving moral purpose.
The first hour is extraordinary – confident and consummate as it unfurls three plot strands that will inevitably entwine. Arrestee Anton Chigurh ( Javier Bardem) escapes his police escort and kills an innocent passer-by with a cattle stungun. Trailer trash cowboy Llewelyn Moss ( Josh Brolin) happens upon a pile of corpses, a stash of heroin and $2m cash in the Texas desert. And craggy, scrupulous sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives too late to both crime scenes, his creased, hooded eyes narrowing as the dolorous words of his opening voiceover, outlining his duties as lawman, echo in viewers’ minds: “Man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say, ‘OK, I’ll be part of this world…’”
Ostensibly a chase movie that sees Moss fleeing the indestructible, damn-near-inhuman Chigurh (contract killer, ghost or angel of vengeance?) as Bell lags behind, dejectedly trawling from one messy cadaver to the next, No Country also finds time to meditate on the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of man. It’s a moving, melancholic picture, set in Texas in 1980 but speaking for today’s America, and it miraculously juggles high entertainment value – graveyard humour, searing action, choking suspense – with a plaintive tone as it chews on themes of sin and redemption, love and violence, fate and free will. It’s in these quieter scenes that the movie finds time to breathe. Roger Deakins’ exemplary photography captures the might and majesty of the burnished desertscapes, while Carter Burwell’s stark, haunting music is used so sparingly that the real soundtrack is the wind whipping across the plains. The first half of the film, especially, is stripped down and scrubbed clean of static, its potent images dedicated to the silent spaces between words and actions. Audiences can smell the dust, feel the sting of windswept sand… and then the action swerves into a twilight world of rundown gas stations and sticky motel rooms, the stench of sweat wafting from spotted sheets as Moss dresses wounds, saws down shotguns and twitches curtains.
Given few words to play with (but each of them worth rolling around the tongue), Brolin is a revelation, compounding his good work in American Gangster to announce himself as an actor of real heft. Jones, as the titular old-timer, brings a serrated edge to McCarthy’s mournful words, though it’s his turn in Paul Haggis’ In The Valley Of Elah that makes him a frontrunner for Oscar. And Bardem is best of the lot, his pale, slouching, mop-topped psycho cracking lopsided grins under gleaming eyes.
The Coens’ best film? Yeeesss… No. That title still belongs to Miller’s Crossing. Yet for such a question to demand pause for thought speaks volumes: No Country For Old Men is an instant classic.