Generally, thrillers begin with the protagonist’s demand of the audience’s sympathy. Meanwhile, the villain is only gradually unveiled until the audience observes his full wrath during a climactic breaking point of anxiety.
The Coens (Joel and Ethan, “The Ladykillers”) completely disregard this convention in “No Country for Old Men,” an adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same title. The first scene sets a brutal, unrelenting tone for the rest of the movie: Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, “Collateral”) blasts an apparently innocent old man’s brains out with some kind of pressurized hardware. The senior was just trying to help jump Anton’s car.
Elsewhere, the supposed protagonist, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin, “Planet Terror”), unsuspectingly uncovers the remains of a drug deal gone wrong with a high body count (including a dead dog) and only one survivor, who is slowly dying and begs for “agua.” With the scene, the Coens drop a frank reminder of how masochistic they can be and how sadistic “No Country” will be.
Llewelyn takes a satchel filled with money and leaves the man to die. Within two angst-ridden and prolonged scenes – in which Anton literally throws the life of a helpless gas station attendant in the air with a coin toss, and Llewelyn foolishly returns to the crime scene to satisfy his conscience’s plea to help the parched man – it becomes clear Anton has been hired to recover the case of money.
Both men are driven: Anton, calculating and maniacal, tracks the money, nonchalantly murdering anyone who irks him or gets in his way; Llewelyn shrewdly does all he can to delay what he realizes is inevitable – the eventual and unwilling surrender of both the money and his life.
Bardem plays sociopathic Anton with maverick precision, maintaining the disturbing air of intelligence behind his character. Brolin gives one of his better performances, never seeming desperate despite Llewelyn’s overwhelmed mix of fear, anger and a lack of options.
Not only does “No Country” have a tight suspense plot to make John Grisham wince, it’s also terrifying. The perverse use of power tools evokes memories of the gory insanity in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” but the Coens challenge horror conventions. Anton is revealed as the monster early in the film with explicit, graphic violence, and the Coens diminish the gore as the movie progresses, leaving it up to the viewer to construct their own horrific, bloody images of death. And without doubt, the Coens supply their audience with plenty of these opportunities.
But “No Country” isn’t just a thriller or horror film – it’s a western. As much as the Coens play on blood and the viewer’s imagination, the film also emphasizes dioramic shots of the undeveloped West. At its core, “No Country” is about cowboys jostling with one another and with the characters’ profound isolation.
Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones, “In the Valley of Elah”), a local law enforcer always three steps behind the other rogue characters, confronts the constant combat in the face of grave seclusion. His age only exaggerates these motifs. Bell is on the verge of retirement and clearly feels a deep sense of disgust (accompanied by exhaustion and confusion) over the crimes and his inability to prevent further bloodshed.
Above all, “No Country for Old Men” is unfalteringly forceful. The Coens allow Sheriff Bell to channel McCarthy’s voice self-reflexively: “You just can’t imagine this stuff, and I dare you to.” The intensity is warped and creative. But by the end, the audience is in the driver’s seat. We’re forced to concoct our own masochistic confrontations that pass off-camera and, eventually, imagine the horrendous acts Anton has already perpetrated as well as those yet to come to insane and bloody fruition.
Rating: 4 and a half out of 5 stars
Country for Old Men
At the State Theater, Quality 16 and Showcase