A Young Man's Game

29 January 2008

The brooding, windswept plains of Texas vie for screen time with an unknowable multitude of motels, hotels, diners and offices in the Coen brothers’ new film, ‘No Country For Old Men’. Based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, the plot follows three men: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), as they hunt and track one another in the aftermath of a drug deal gone awry.

The story, however, is ultimately of little consequence. Much of the film’s criticism has hung on its comparison to Fargo (1996), arguably the brother’s most acclaimed piece of work, which also follows a sociopath killer turned loose, following a large sum of money. The similarities, however, end there, and to rate ‘No Country For Old Men’ against ‘Fargo’ does both films a great disservice. They both adhere to the Coen’s own semi genre of bungled deals, underestimations, missing cases of money and indomitable psychopaths. However, in its own way, ‘The Big Lebowski’ (1998) fits into this categorisation, as does ‘Raising Arizona’ (1987).

Thus, ‘No Country For Old Men’ must be taken on its own, unique, terms. Its pace is deliberate. It is, on all accounts, a slow moving film and this is as excruciating as it is exquisite. Its languorous attitude to the plot’s development is its greatest triumph, and it emerges as something of a mix between Antonioni (circa ‘The Passenger’) and Terence Malick. Shifting, it seems, in and out of the celluloid is Anton Chigurh, with his gently menacing Monkees style haircut and slow, deliberate grin. He speaks in a semi whisper, his lines falling dead into the air around him. Indeed, the careful sculpting of wickedly witty lines from the Coen’s previous work (see ‘The Big Lebowski’, in particular) is gone, replaced by characters who mumble and grunt, lending them animalistic airs, and further highlighting the Coen’s disinterest in the plot’s development. What seems to be the focus here is the primal forces compelling these men to do their work, and the backdrop against which they do it.

This backdrop is made up of, on the one hand, stunning Texas vistas, badlands stretching to the horizon, and on the other hand, deep, penetrating close-ups of soiled motel rooms and hazy offices, in which the desks are haphazardly stacked with yellowed papers, ready to topple. By the time a close-up of the hairs on a rug melts into an image of desert scrubland, we have already been entranced by the brothers’ spell.

Populating these landscapes, the more familiar oddballs and kooks appear, like ghosts themselves from the Coen’s previous work. In the drawl of a trucker we can hear The Stranger’s delivery of a story about “this fella I wanna tell ya about”, and in the blind barkings of a U.S. border guard, we can pick out a definite hint of Walter Sobchak. Previously these men have been at the forefront of the Coen Brother’s films, and they are now relegated to the wallpaper, providing comic relief and contrast, but constantly secondary to the movements of the film’s doomed trio. The performances are superb without exception. In Tommy Lee Jones’ pockmarked visage, we can read the weariness of a lifetime, and in Josh Brolin’s eyes there is a smothered and deeply disturbing panic.

There is no one review, and no trailer that can convey the film’s sense of seeping dread. It is not a case of the bad guys winning at the end (though the ‘good guys’ certainly don’t emerge victorious), but more a case of the Coens pulling the rug from under our feet, then giving us another to stand on before that gives way too. Not only does the film defy expectation based on our experience of their previous work, it defies our cinematic expectations in the same way that Hitchcock defied them with his cruel disposal of Marion Crane in ‘Psycho’. This is ultimately the best reason to go and see the film; simply to be in awe of the freshness of this work. For those of us that follow the Coens, this is doubly true, as it is a summer downpour after a long period of drought. We should not leave the cinema debating as to whether it tops Steve Buscemi’s ratty performance in ‘Fargo’, or Nicholas Cage’s loveable idiot in ‘Raising Arizona’. We should leave in wonder of the fact that the Coens can tell us tales of missing money and failed handovers at least three times and leave us feeling completely different after each one. ‘Fargo’ makes us want to look and at the same time flinch, as if we’ve been confronted with a horribly fascinating train wreck. ‘The Big Lebowski’ finishes giving us a sense of warmness and comfort. ‘No Country For Old Men’ leaves us with a sense of thick and terrible disquiet.