By Don Simpson | March 30, 2009
Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Writer(s): Cormac McCarthy (novel), Joel & Ethan Coen (screenplay)
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly MacDonald
Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a Vietnam vet, is out hunting antelope in the barren wasteland of post-oil boom West Texas when he stumbles across a downright scary site – a freshly massacred group of Mexican drug smugglers. Conveniently the killer(s) forgot to take the satchel full of cold hard cash or the drugs (maybe everyone killed each other and no one survived a la John Woo). Being a down and out, good for nothin’ West Texas rancher, greed gets the better of his limited intelligence. Llewelyn opts to take the satchel full of money and run like hell. Boy howdy! Unfortunately, he knowingly left a lone survivor of the aforementioned shootout begging for water and his life. This angers the gods and unleashes the most unholy of biblical vengeance’s.
Enter Anton Chigurh(portrayed masterfully by Javier Bardem), a psychotic hit-man for hire sent to recover the cash. For reasons unknown, Anton Chigurh (“ant on sugar”) morphs his assignment into an undisclosed mission of his own. He seems to view himself as the grim reaper, the barer of death; allowing fate (for instance, a coin toss) to determine whether whoever crosses his path will live or die (most die). Chigurh is relentlessly drawn to the satchel of money, leaving a trail of dead in his wake.
Llewelyn realizes that he’s up shit’s creek. He sends his oblivious and burdensome wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) to hide at her mother’s as he runs the opposite direction. Llewelyn makes a million mistakes along the way, giving Chigurh a trail of breadcrumbs to follow all the way to his hiding spot. At this point, Chigurh’s sole destiny is to kill Llewelyn; retrieving the money is only secondary. The man who hired Chigurh (Stephen Root) realizes that he has unleashed a psychopath who has turned his assignment into a biblical slaughter-fest; so he hires another hit-man, Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), to put a stop to Chigurh. But, of course, nothing can stop fate.
The only reasonable (and morally just) person in this tale is Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), the sheriff of Llewelyn’s hometown. He offers to help Llewelyn, but being that Llewelyn (like the Dude of the Big Lebowski) abides by his own rules, he does not trust the police. Llewelyndoes not want to give up his loot so he denies any knowledge of the situation. Sheriff Bell is the voice of reason for this story (which alternates between first and third person). In summary, his opinion is that the modern world (of 1980) is going to the shitter, thanks to drugs and violent crime being introduced to the once safe (and pure) West Texas communities by “outsiders” (and like-minded Americans of 1980 elected Ronald Reagan for this very reason). Things are so far beyond hope in his eyes, he is ready to throw in the towel and retire (obviously, he does not remember the Alamo).
The Joel and Ethan Coen have made a career out of making strong moral films revolving around greed. They have a penchant for idiosyncratic colloquialisms of language and quirky regional (primarily old-time) sayings. They idealize the old world (1950s), when drugs and violent crime presumably did not exist and when language was flowery and entertaining. Sometimes this formula works well for them (Barton Fink, Big Lebowski) and other times it fails (Ladykillers, Unfaithfullly Yours). No Country for Old Menis the culmination of the cultural and moral philosophy of the Coen brothers. The adapted Cormac McCarthy novel from 2005 (which borrows its name from the William Butler Yeats poem “Sailing to Byzantium”) epitomizes everything about the Coens’ from their rich moral fiber to off-beat linguistics; most of all, like the Coens, McCarthy has a strong fear of modernity and change.
It is difficult to tell if McCarthy and the Coens are more fearful of drugs and violence or immigration (namely: Mexicans). The Mexicans are responsible for the drugs and the violence. Javier Bardem’s Chigurh is never said to be from Mexico, be we can only make that assumption by his strange accent (that all the Texan white folk have a difficult time understanding) and hairstyle (that no good Texan would be caught dead with). Chigurh, the “outsider,” determines the destiny of the good, hardworking, local Texas folk who are being punished for letting drugs (and Mexicans) across their border.
Speaking of which…and just give me a minute…I’m trying to think of a strong, positive female character in the Coen brothers’ oeuvre. You know, [a role model] for kids! I can’t think of any (though a case could be made for Frances McDormand’s Marge in Fargo). Carla Jean, is no exception – she is as dumb as a freakin’ doorknob. Presumably, she does not work; she sits in their trailer home all day watching the boob tube. When Llewelyn comes home all she wants to do is talk, talk, talk (the only way to get her to shut her pie–hole is with the threat of a good screw). Of course if Carla Jean had any sense or wits about her, she would have slapped Llewelyn upside the head and made him return the money or at least hand it in to the sheriff. Then again, that would have made for one damn uneventful film.
All in all, No Country for Old Men is a harsh and depressing perspective of the state of the U.S. (primarily Texas) in 1980 – the Coens and McCarthy would probably agree that things have gotten much worse. The story offers no discussion on the situation or possible solutions; the Coens and McCarthy have thrown in the towel and given up (just like Sheriff Ed Tom Bell).
Where No Country for Old Mendoes succeed is in the unsettling environment it creates. The Yeats poem, McCarthy’s novel and the Coen brother’s film all share a dense metaphysical air about them. The disturbing undercurrents at work in the multiple manifestations of this tale are unforeseeable and unavoidable (in other words: fate and/or destiny).
Yeats’ old man is like a scarecrow, frail and weary, with no fight left in him. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, despite his badge, gun and bronze star medal (earned during WWII), is too old to win the battle against the new evils coming into his world. Helpless and hopeless, the old men of these stories can only wait around for the unavoidable (death). Jeez Louise! If it is really this depressing to be old, I sure hope euthanasia is legal when I decide to throw in the towel!