Good old boys & monsters

  • by David Lamble
  • Tuesday November 13, 2007
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Josh Brolin in <i>No Country for Old Men.</i><br> Photo: Richard Foreman, courtesy Miramax.
Josh Brolin in No Country for Old Men.
Photo: Richard Foreman, courtesy Miramax.

In the terrific new Coen Brothers film No Country for Old Men, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is sitting over the remains of breakfast, getting upset with that morning's paper. Bell, who has the law in his DNA, reads the item to his deputy. The officers are investigating a drug deal gone very bad — rotting bodies and shot-up trucks dotting the West Texas desert — and they're starting to believe that they're dealing with a cold, merciless killer. Ed Tom Bell doesn't need the paper to know the world around him has taken a turn for the worse.

The story opens as Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, scarier than we ever imagined him) escapes a local jail by throttling a deputy with his own cuffs, stealing the squad car, then dispatching a passing motorist with a stun-gun normally used to slaughter cattle.

We then follow a good old boy, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin), as he shoots antelope in the desert. Moss soon stumbles over a human killing-field: bullet-ridden trucks, gun-shot men, a stash of Mexican brown in neatly wrapped bricks, and a large satchel with over $2 million, apparently untraceable. Moss knows he's a dumb-ass for taking the money, and an even dumber one for returning to the scene of the crime.

Jones' Ed Tom is less a lawman about to stop the bad guy than a kind of deposed god musing on what's turned so rotten in his state of Texas. Like the stage manager in Our Town, Ed Tom guides us through a landscape of bodies, some of whom don't know they're dead.

Bardem is a revelation as Anton, the killer with principles — arguing with him is like beating death at chess in Bergman's Seventh Seal, or reasoning with Arnold's cyborg in The Terminator. But Bardem sparkles because he's more than an intellectual conceit, and much more than a single-joke buffoon. His eyes bore through you just before the bullet; if you stick him, he bleeds. One of the best sequences is Anton's practical demonstration of how a man operates on himself after his leg has practically been severed at the bone.

The Coen Brothers revel in the details of how a man flees an inescapable fate. Our hearts race as ordinary sounds — the unscrewing of a light bulb, the beep of a transponder — signal impending doom as inexorably as a Biblical thunderclap.

The film is a doggedly faithful adaptation of a Southern writer who's been likened to Faulkner. Cormac McCarthy writes much shorter sentences, but has some of the Mississippi master's love of primal themes, including bad ends for characters who believed they deserved better. The Coen Brothers honor McCarthy by reproducing whole chunks of dialogue from the book, and judiciously trimming plot. Jones' plaintive mourning for a country that's become too complicated to police is enough for us to know why he's packing it in.