Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Review by Chiranjit Goswami
Posted on 01 October 2007
Source Alliance 35mm print
Categories The 32nd Toronto International Film Festival
At the risk of sounding ridiculous and squandering whatever small amount of respect I might have accumulated thus far, I have to say that I sometimes actually feel sorry for successful American filmmakers, even when they are funded by the Hollywood-machine. I’m sure that such a statement will draw some ire, particularly when associated to a website dedicated to advocating and endorsing obscure films from across the world, which remain unknown due in part to the business tactics of Hollywood corporations. I also doubt my sympathy is especially necessary considering the people I’m referring to are usually overly narcissistic and excessively wealthy. However, I also have serious misgivings that the work of these types of directors is evaluated in an impartial manner.
Of course, acclaimed American filmmakers benefit greatly from having champions within mainstream media outlets that have generally acted as great bastions of conformist criticism. Unfortunately, the admiration that these Hollywood directors receive from such standard sources also serves as a sufficient justification for backlash against their efforts. Consequently, various film critics have crafted a reputable career, garnered esteem from their peers, and attracted a devoted following of readers largely due their adamant stance that Hollywood is devoid of weighty exhibitions of authentic artistry. Often when these critics encounter rare instances of potentially insightful films produced with Hollywood support, there remains a tendency to characterize these examples as severely compromised in artistic terms, lacking the ability or autonomy to compose any genuinely astute observations beyond the bland proclamations that the masses are allowed and willing to swallow. As predisposed as these judgments appear, the arguments are difficult to dispute since Hollywood product remains are so predictable and vacant.
Unlike the generic comments offered by larger publications, I greatly value the comments of alt-press critics because their opinions are generated from incisive minds, with perceptive eyes, and supported by significant scholarship. Yet, while I admire their austere adherence to their principles, I also find it distressing that these critics rigidly apply their doctrine without reservation and that they find so much obedient support and adoration for their obvious bias. It’s equally irksome to witness the same cycle of critical response occur repeatedly, with mainstream critics eager to hail the next masterpiece while their alt-press counterparts fervently sharpen their knives. It’s a routine of overreaction from both sides that becomes utterly tiresome and rather redundant considering the films being judged typically drift into the cinematic median within a few years.
This is all a rambling way of stating that I’m truly dreading the reaction that the Coen brothers will receive over the upcoming months for their latest project, No Country for Old Men because it is sure to be accompanied by exaggeration on both sides of the fence. In fact I’m fully prepared for the critical pendulum to swing forcefully from immediate acclaim to vehement disdain within a matter of weeks, with heated arguments and arrant bickering becoming particularly frenzied as opinionated people attempt to determine whether the film is truly deserving of any distinction.
An adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s neo-western novel, No Country for Old Men generated a significant amount of buzz at Cannes earlier this year and the Coens have already received a considerable amount of praise for the project from a variety of major American publications. Such commendation is a dramatic deviation from the clamorous contempt the brothers received for their past two films. In fact, after the disappointing reception of Intolerable Cruelty and the outright failure of The Ladykillers, the critical consensus seemed to be that the Coens had fully descended into mediocrity as a result of wholeheartedly embracing the type of vapid, superficial, hollow filmmaking that critics had customarily derided them for implementing in their past work. Such abrasive criticism would probably demoralize most filmmakers, but the Coens appear fairly indifferent to the critical reception that their films receive.
Regularly cited as a disparaging example within the ongoing debate regarding whether filmmakers should concentrate on form or content, the Coens’ filmmaking is sometimes considered to be an excuse for their ongoing postmodern mockery of genre conventions, and is frequently characterized as exhibiting an abundance of snide style while being glaringly lacking in concrete substance. It’s a viewpoint that the brothers have seldom bothered to dispute or address, seemingly content to continue refining their craft, while others debate the merits of their methods of delivery. Instead, the Coens seem opposed to scholarly interpretation of their films and carry on diligently weaving the structures of their elaborate narratives, carefully sculpting every sentence of dialogue, and vigilantly planning each angle within their cinematic sequences. Perhaps it’s this insouciant attitude to their critical reception that infuriates so many critics, or maybe it’s just that writing about the Coens’ films is frustrating when they refuse to discuss any potential depth within their work. I doubt there are many cinema enthusiasts who, while watching a Coen Brothers film, haven’t pondered - at least momentarily - whether or not there is anything beneath all that style.
While No Country for Old Men might not provide us with a definitive answer, the film certainly feels like an oddity within the Coens’ oeuvre; a rare instance of the Coens allowing their eccentric, aberrant, sinister humor and their mischievous, sapient, self-aware cinematic tactics to acquiesce in order to allow the viewer to consider the various themes embedded within McCarthy’s narrative. Though this may not automatically substantiate the film, it functions as a noteworthy demonstration that the Coens are willing to sacrifice the spotlight in service of the story and exhibits a tactful, mellow, almost humble filmmaking method that may be welcome in the minds of some viewers. In some ways the film serves as magnificent illustration that style and substance, even when subdued, may coexist without conflict and may actually enhance the aspirations of their creators.
In theory, the combination of McCarthy words and the Coens’ presentation appears incompatible, since there is a pronounced incongruence between McCarthy’s sparse, leisurely, practical prose (which even eliminates the nuisance of punctuation) and the Coens’ garrulous, dynamic, florid filmmaking. However, though it often goes overlooked within McCarthy’s work, the author shares the Coens’ ability to swiftly assemble taut sequences of nerve-racking action without waste. What both parties undoubtedly appear to value immensely is their construction of a vivid atmosphere and an appropriate tone to their story. It’s these qualities that make No Country for Old Men a fitting choice for the Coens’ unique sensibilities and abundant skill.
It is atmosphere and tone that the Coens concentrate upon during the opening moments of No Country for Old Men, with their frames dedicated to expansive, but barren, desert landscapes. The images of these bleak borderlands serve as the customary establishing shots required to situate the viewer within the setting, but the extensive period that the Coens spend on the serene surrounding scenery also allows the viewer to comprehend the enormity of the environment and perhaps its enduring nature, which is a stark contrast to the world of men which we will soon enter. Naturally, the tranquility of the various vistas is broken by the presence of man, though delivered in the form of the soothing voice of Tommy Lee Jones, who starts a nostalgic narration that mourns the passage of time, speaks of the incomprehensible strategy of God, and the inexplicable shift in morality within an increasingly brutal modern society. The words express a certain acceptance of the helplessness that men may become stricken with as time leaves them behind, powerless to comprehend or cope with the bedlam that abruptly seizes civilization and suddenly renders a generation as obsolete.
The concept that there is an inevitable futility of our actions seems familiar to the films that carry the Coens’ creative credits. Within a number of their films, the Coens have focused on characters who seek to make their life more comfortable, mistakenly believing either that they are unjustly bound to their current circumstances or that they deserve better than the world is currently offering. Unfortunately, the self-serving choices that these protagonists make result in unexpected consequences and they soon descend into an almost overwhelming chaos, which they are ill-equipped to handle though they typically believe themselves to be quite capable. The resulting turmoil created by their decision fascinates and entertains the audience, but whether the individual survives through the events is generally unknown, as the outcome is frequently determined by the random occurrences of the world. While the characters tend to remain unaware of the greater forces at play, the intricacies of the events we witness allow the viewer to realize that man is subservient to the complexity of the hostile surrounding world, which we cannot control for our own benefit. No Country for Old Men continues this trend, but it also subverts some standard expectations along the way.
Moments after we have been greeted by Jones’ plaintive voice, we soon encounter the terrifying cruelty and the frustrating futility mentioned by his narration. Ostensibly a chase-movie at its core, No Country for Old Men follows the trail of three men, all attempting to alter the circumstances that surround them and restore the equilibrium based upon an arrangement that suits their values. The prey within this scenario, who initially fails to understand his position, is a simple man named Llewelyn Moss. Moss is a Vietnam-veteran who lives in a dusty trailer-park and appears to be struggling through life. We quickly understand Moss’s inadequacy as we witness the veteran unsuccessfully hunt an antelope. Resigned to his failure as a sniper no longer able to aim, with the herd scattering into the horizon, Moss settles into a lethargic stroll across the desert, while the Coens stress his evident insignificance by considerably reducing his size within their frame and contrasting him against the vast landscape that he attempts to traverse.
Along the way back to his beat-up truck, Moss stumbles upon the scene of a massacre apparently undiscovered within the desert’s isolation. Moss cautiously rummages through the wreckage of pickup trucks, heroin packages, bloody bodies, and canine corpses, ignoring the pleas of any survivors—they will join the dead soon enough. In a brief display of skill, Moss then locates an escapee from the slaughter, tracking a path of blood that predicts that the drug smuggler will soon succumb to the wounds he suffered in the barbaric shoot-out, rightfully suspecting that there is treasure at the end of this trail. Once he uncovers the sum within the suitcase, Moss absconds with the millions, calmly returning home to his wife, Carla Jean, a sweet southern-belle convincingly played by Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald, who is perpetually worried about Llewelyn’s activities and whereabouts. As if he’s just endured another stressful day at the office, Llewelyn now relaxes on the couch with his wife, satisfied that he was successfully triumphed over the world outside.
Alas, Moss can’t leave well-enough alone and foolishly acts on his nagging suspicions, allowing himself to become the target for a team of Mexican assassins. Unluckily for Llewelyn, the Mexican contingent is far less threatening than a menacing hunter by the name of Anton Chigurh, who has also been hired to hunt Llewelyn down. Chigurh is a predator in every sense of the word; his ruthless conviction to kill is frightening to witness, especially as he stalks his prey while carting around a lethal air gun that emits a disturbingly smooth hiss while he cranks up its pressure.
In pursuit of all this astonishing anarchy, unable to determine whether he is capable of preventing the unfathomable brutality that accompanies these modern men, is Sheriff Bell. Sensing that Moss is unprepared to deal with chaos he has unknowingly created, Bell sets out to inhibit any further carnage, but it is obvious that he feels archaic when confronted by the cruelty of contemporary criminals.
As they must support the audience’s sympathy, the Coens allow Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones to ease into their roles, selecting specific spots to add their signature humor to emphasize particular character traits. In casting Jones as the aging, honorable, but overwhelmed sheriff, the Coens use every inch of Jones’ weathered face to capture how disillusioned Bell has grown over these past years. The weary expression held within Jones’ mug, with the wrinkles that contain his wisdom and allow him to convincingly make wry remarks, conveys the inherent moral decency that Bell bases his life upon. However, those same wrinkles, coupled with Jones’ fatigued expression and aided by his affecting eyes, also express how exhausted Bell has become with the horrors he now routinely encounters during the drug-war that has invaded the land he protects. The Coens appear quite comfortable with Jones, permitting the experienced actor to exude his natural affability and maintain his contemplative quality, but also providing moments to savor his constantly dry, mildly acerbic, calmly sardonic delivery of annotations to the events he wishes he didn’t have to witness.
Meanwhile, the Coens ask Brolin to balance his role between impressively crafty and exasperatingly irrational. Brolin does well to convey Llewelyn’s sense of desperation simply through his distressing facial expression, even though we are not provided with a proper reason for his pathetic situation. However, while there is little argument that he is a flawed man, susceptible to making brash decisions provoked by temptation, Moss has been unfairly characterized by a handful of critics as being dense, when in fact he constantly displays himself to be highly resourceful even though he is severely outmatched. Such negative descriptions of Moss may rely heavily upon his foolish determination, which seems fuelled by his motivation to provide a respectable life for his wife and causes Moss to make some unreasonable choices to protect his potential wealth. Perhaps the assumption that Moss is stupid is also due to the Coens’ tendency to exercise spiteful humor at the expense of the simpletons that are scattered throughout their films. Such criticism seems needless in relation to Llewelyn as any humor we enjoy at his expense is only brief, and while he certainly appears beleaguered by the events he encounters, he never appears entirely oblivious to the obstacles that lay ahead of him.
The Coens’ characteristically peculiar sensibilities are far more noticeable with the supporting characters within No Country for Old Men. While they appear willing to suppress their natural inclination to create overtly odd personalities within their cinematic world, the Coens do allow their penchant for the peculiar people to subtly seep into the desolate environment they have decided to explore. The results are remarkably hilarious, even though the Coens curtail their notoriously snarky humor while sketching these characters. In this instance, the brothers appear content to cultivate the performances of their actors, gleefully finding moments of eccentricity to cherish, such as Stephen Root’s fiendish eyebrow, Woody Harrelson’s recklessly assured attitude, Beth Grant’s irksome elderly advice, or the appearance of Garret Dillahunt’s daft deputy. Such small quirks within these supporting performances appear to be enough to keep the Coens content while they steer their project straight for once.
Undoubtedly, the most intriguing consequence of the Coens’ efforts with their new cast is their collaboration with Javier Bardem in constructing an unsettlingly, unrelenting, soulless killer. Bardem’s performance as Anton Chigurh is sure to seize the bulk of attention within No Country for Old Men, as he skillfully sculpts the character into a primal presence within the film. An ingeniously ferocious killer who is disturbingly resolute in finishing his designated work, Chigurh is willing to off anything within his path, whether specified targets, supportive henchmen, vacillating superiors, or mildly meddlesome bystanders, without any discernable remorse or prejudice as long as it enables him to deliver on his guarantee. Perfectly content to slay without regard for his surroundings, Chigurd effortlessly crosses through elapsed environments and contemporary climates, apparently equally as comfortable executing his victims along desolate desert roads as he is exterminating executives within steel skyscrapers. Camouflaged considerably by what might be the dorkiest hair-cut ever saved in celluloid (perhaps only matched in absurdity by the jheri-curl that Sam Jackson once sported), Bardem endows Chigurd with an intimidating frigid glare accompanied by an unnerving baritone voice that rumbles through each scene whenever he chooses to speak - which is rarely - and is capable of rattling any onlooker, even when he identifies them as his friend. Chigurd’s inexorable nature is so implausible that when Moss misguidedly brands him as “the ultimate badass,” he is disheartened to learn that such an extreme term isn’t even an adequate description. Truthfully, Chigurd’s detached, insistent, threatening form of evil almost feels biblical in nature.
It’s quite apparent that McCarthy and the Coens intend Chigurh’s relentless malevolence to be the antithesis to Bell’s steadfast integrity, with Moss crawling between the two territories as an ordinary soul regrettably susceptible to standard sins. Yet, while many have purported that the interactions between these characters integrate to make some sort of grand statement about the nature of good and evil, this really isn’t exactly new territory being discovered by a vanguard. Instead, the Coens simply allow these three characters to fascinate us while we watch them apply their personal principles as they attempt to survive through their individual troubles.
It’s surely Chigurd’s actions that captivate us most often simply because the evil that he embodies remains so unknown, impenetrable, and confounding. While Anton is merciless, he does not kill without purpose and even spares one soul from unnecessary punishment. Though his murderous methods often appear improvised, Chigurd does not kill impulsively or purely for pleasure, and his victims are not chosen entirely at random. Instead, Chigurd’s lethal actions appear to be governed by some perverse sense of responsibility and a code determined by obligation. Such a policy might be somewhat comprehensible if only Chigurd didn’t occasionally allow chance to determine the fate of potential victims. Thus, a significant portion of our fear and trepidation of Chigurd is our inability to understand the bizarre application of his code. Naturally, the Coens take full advantage of our uncertainly regarding Chigurd’s procedures, exploiting the anxiety that develops while we watch the placid assassin quietly hunt his target without worry.
The intense chase scenes within No Country for Old Men are successful because they starkly contrast with the somber tone that pervades the majority of the film. In fact, with the help of Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography, it is astounding how ascetic, restrained, and rigorous the Coens’ filmmaking methods are throughout the film, thereby constantly creating a grim mood and elegiac atmosphere. Perhaps in an effort to match the strict morality that Chigurd and Bell tirelessly uphold, the Coens stringently adhere to concentrating on the stillness of objects within their images, thereby ensuring their kinetic sequences will be even more exhilarating. Hence, the Coens are able to crank up the stress to ridiculous levels using the most basic cinematic methods possible, as door-locks and air vents have never felt more ominous, and protection feels hopeless as projectiles pierce through every known barrier without warning.
Whereas the Coens’ have previously displayed their aptitude for scenes involving verbose interaction between their characters, they now demonstrate their proficiency of silence within No Country for Old Men, patiently building an outrageous amount of tension by lingering on inert images for lengthy periods, before skillfully stringing together sequences of action without a single word being spoken. Almost as another reflection of the characters’ persistence, the Coens’ action-sequences are apparently a product of their relentless storyboarding. Thus, the results of their precise preparation, which are inserted throughout No Country for Old Men, are consistently spectacular and invigorating to observe.
Nevertheless, as meticulous and severe as the Coens remain throughout the majority of No Country for Old Men, the brothers still insert a few characteristic moments of understated playfulness. One particularly pattern is that they constantly commence scenes while looking directly down upon Llewelyn while he sleeps. As we impatiently wait for our protagonist to revive, perched above him with a God-like overhead angle over the proceedings, Moss quickly awakens and immediately addressed the viewer with a concise retort of recognition while peering directly into the camera. The construction of these brief scenes acts as if we are actually prodding Moss to awaken so that the story may maintain its momentum, and he is likewise openly acknowledging our presence and requirements. Though quite rare within No Country for Old Men, such mischievous moments demonstrate the Coens still find a certain amount of pleasure in fiddling with generic filmmaking methods.
The Coens have always enjoyed teasing the constraints imposed upon them by the genres they choose to work within. Consequently their decision to adapt McCarthy’s novel is actually quite appropriate since the narrative’s unusual resolution allows the Coens to subvert the natural expectations associated to genres that favor conclusion through confrontation. Instead, the Coens avoid the anticipated climactic showdown between our three central characters, as their paths only converge momentarily.
Once he has recovered from his struggle with Chigurd, Llewelyn’s fortune turns sour after he reinforces the impression that he is liable to temptations, even when such enticements appear relatively innocuous. Meanwhile, as if to substantiate his resolve, Sheriff Bell decides to confront the demon he has been dreading, encroaching onto terrifying territory even after sensing Chigurd’s chilling presence, but convinced that his sense of duty requires that he trespass into the devil’s sadistic grasp. The scene is rightfully tense, as we understand the crippling apprehension that Bell finally overcomes, only to discover that his tormenter shares his trepidation, as if intimidated by Bell’s unwavering decency. Surprisingly, after spending so much time dreading his inevitable encounter with the inexplicable evil embodied by Chigurd, Sheriff Bell endures by shedding the responsibilities which he no longer feels capable of handling. Chigurd’s destiny is even more complicated, as the Coens defy the expectation that his perpetually sanguinary state will eventually cease once it is predictably defeated. Instead, after finishing his most disturbing deed, and just when we believe that he is finally receiving some form of divine retribution for the cruelty he has inflicted upon others, Chigurd simply stumbles away abetted by the grace of strangers, albeit severely damaged.
No matter how ambiguous these final sequences may appear the Coens are wise to accurately preserve the stoic sincerity of McCarthy’s conclusion, steering clear of the satire they so often apply. Truthfully, I expected such solemn moments to expose the Coens’ tactics are mere simulation, but they remain as authentic as one could hope. The brothers’ resilience in handling McCarthy’s earnest resolution is an ideal representation of the suitable partnership between the novelist and the filmmakers. An ideal amalgamation between the substance within the written word and cinematic style, No Country for Old Men is a rare occurrence within contemporary American cinema of a faithful adaptation of a literary work that conveys the spirit of its source, while simultaneously being infused with the distinctive traits and inclinations of its filmmakers. Essentially, No Country for Old Men somehow manages to embrace and accommodate two divergent perspectives without incurring any friction.
Which brings me back to my dread of how the film will eventually be received by critics. Already being touted by a number of publications as a “return to form” for the Coens, No Country for Old Men will probably enjoy a initially rapturous reception followed by a significant period of admiration and exaltation, before eventually encountering a raucous chorus of dissenting opinions who are reluctant to grant the film commendation without exposing its flaws. It’s a reasonable response to expect considering even the most impressive results of the Coens previous efforts have been subjected to a strenuous amount of scorn. Still, it all feels like it would be overreaction towards a film that appears to have modest aspirations in mind. No Country for Old Men is definitely a “return to form” simply because it serves to demonstrate that the Coens remain capable of making respectable films that ponder mature matters, without sacrificing their inimitable methods. The film may still validate the notion that the Coens’ filmmaking is more functional than figurative, but how can the talented siblings be faulted for performing their fundamental responsibilities as filmmakers at such an exceptionally lofty level. Whatever the eventual reaction may be for No Country for Old Men (I’m assuming it will be predominantly positive), the Coens can take comfort with the fact that they have created a wonderfully precise, patient, and pensive American movie that remains thoroughly respectful of the author’s original intensions, and while it’s not a masterpiece, there is always a particular satisfaction in doing your job well, even if your skeptics continue to scoff.
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