Watching the Coen Brothers' superbly crafted scenes of hunter and hunted in No Country for Old Men, I flashed on the one that got away.
In the early part of this decade, Joel and Ethan Coen, Oscar-winning filmmakers of Fargo, Raising Arizona and other hipster classics, sought to adapt James Dickey's last novel To the White Sea for the screen. Brad Pitt expressed interest in playing the lead, an unspeaking, possibly sociopathic U.S. serviceman who becomes a fugitive in Japan after surviving the World War II firebombing of Tokyo. With little dialogue, lavish war scenes and unpromising commercial prospects, To the White Sea's funding fell through and the Coens moved on to Intolerable Cruelty instead.
You can't have an opinion of a film that was never made, but No Country for Old Men seems almost like the Coens' consolation prize for To the White Sea. Cormac McCarthy's highbrow thriller shares the other book's intense violence, hostile landscapes and bleak vision of human affairs. No Country for Old Men marks a roaring return to form for the Coens. After the comedic missteps of Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, they downplay their trademark irony for some of the best work they've ever done, even though their grand statements prove unexpectedly slippery.
Initially, No Country for Old Men seems like just another "bag of money" yarn, like A Simple Plan, Shallow Grave and countless other crime flicks. While hunting on the Texas plains, Vietnam veteran Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles across the remains of a drug deal gone wrong and finds a suitcase carrying $2 million. Aware that he's taking a near-suicidal risk despite the lack of living witnesses, Moss makes off with the cash.
Gangsters from both sides of the Rio Grande border join in the money hunt, but two pursuers are especially formidable. Hit man Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) favors a Moe Howard bowl haircut and a cattle stun gun that runs on compressed air as his favorite murder weapon. Without being remotely appealing, Bardem's Chigurh makes a magnetic psychopath, willing to kill innocent bystanders based on the flip of a coin.
Equally canny but far more open-hearted is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who rides to off-road crime scenes on horseback. Tough but fond of easygoing humor like Mayberry's Andy Griffith, Bell becomes increasingly shaken by the savagery of the new breed of criminals like Chigurh. In cinematic terms, it's like Bell watches with dismay as the reliable, rigid ethical standards of the Western give way to the dog-eat-dog amorality of film noir. Bell introduces the film with a monologue over empty Texas badlands that seems to echo M. Emmet Walsh's prologue to Blood Simple, the Coens' debut film in 1984 and another Texas noir story.
Jones and Bardem provide the kind of charismatic, archetypal hero-and-villain performances you'd expect from the Oscar-caliber actors. Brolin turns out to be the real find of the movie – can a 39-year-old actor be an overnight success after making films for two decades? Already this year he revealed an impressive screen presence as a bullying crooked cop in American Gangster (not to mention his other bad-guy role in Planet Terror). Brolin shows a flair for deadpan comedy in the rare humorous scenes opposite Moss' young wife (Kelly Macdonald) but spends most of the film in a state of watchful calculation, his eyes almost telepathically communicating his plans to the audience.
Most of No Country for Old Men is deliriously suspenseful, with cat-and-mouse games taking place in shabby hotels, motels and ghost towns. It's like watching battles of wits between equally matched opponents, and we arrest our breathing as, for instance, Moss uses tent poles and wire hangers to retrieve the bag from under the noses of hired guns. It's so much bloody fun, it's like the Coens applied their vast cinematic gifts to grindhouse fare, like a remake of The Hitcher.
The film also finds the Coen Brothers trading their sly wit for sincerity, the result being a script that remains faithful to a fault to McCarthy's novel. The denouement relies on a series of anticlimaxes, and there's something deflating about the film's final scenes. McCarthy raises the ancient problem of human evil: Is it an inherent flaw of human nature, or the net result of random fate? McCarthy seems to conclude that it's a generational thing. "Anytime you quit hearing 'Sir' and 'Ma'am,' the end is pretty much in sight," says Bell, and you suspect he's only half-kidding.
It all seems too narrow, an inadequate vision of human affairs, despite some sharply observed final scenes that convey the solidarity of the elderly and the dim prospects of young people to recognize evil when they see it. You imagine a sequel called No Country for Old Men 2: Hey, You Kids! Get Off My Lawn! Nevertheless, it's still great to have such obvious movie fans as the Coen Brothers back in the fold, showing off their technical virtuosity and palpable love of the process. Certainly they're crafty enough as artists to keep human insight from being the one thing that gets away in the future.