Twenty-three years after their collaborative film debut, Blood Simple, and seven years from the last break of comedy productions with The Man Who Wasn't There, writers/directors Joel and Ethan Coen return to their second comfortable genre--noir--with the unflinching No Country for Old Men. Taken verbatim from Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel, the story unfolds on the parched terrain of isolated, southwestern towns so typical to these stories of greed and consequence; these settings outline the borders of hell where righteous humanity is scarce. "The Old-Timers never even used to carry guns" begins the nostalgic narration of Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) who, throughout the film, offers the commentary of the uncontrollable taint of Man. This is no longer a country for old men.
Lewewlyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is not the typical noir protagonist. Nothing in his character suggests much previous innocence, nor even moral judiciousness towards the choices that set events in motion. While hunting antelopes in the mountains, he stumbles across the failures of a Mexican heroine deal. In something like a circled wagon train. The ground is covered with shells. Bodies lay in pools of blood drawing flies. And the trucks are covered in bullet holes and shattered glass, some of the drivers laying slumped over the wheel. And amidst the carnage, an unclaimed satchel full of money that Moss collects.
Moss has such a matter-of-fact approach to his gamble. In modern noir, redemption is not always a guarantee. And, at least here, it is not even an option. Viewers are likely to reason that stealing from a drug dealer, and especially a villain who lays everything to waste without question, is not really a damning fault. Though, it can be a very stupid thing to do. And, in classic noir form, where greed and conscience are often odds, Moss's inclination towards the latter, pose the challenge for his own survival.
Moss's crucial worry is not the aging Sheriff Bell (Jones) nor the understanding federal drug agent Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), but rather his black-hearted personal reaper, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, closely resembling a young Raul Julia). "He won't care if you return the money," Wells explains to Moss when he is recovering in a hospital from the men's first face-to-face encounter. "He'll kill you just for inconveniencing him."
The story of the greedy man turned drug dealer's prey has been told countless times before and yet, Joel and Ethan Coen have produced a film of such immediate applause (already achieving a top 40 spot in the IMDb top 250 movies list as of this writing). The initial lure is likely the solid starring and supporting cast. The film itself draws on the love affair for retro atmosphere that directors like Quentin Tarrantino have made a trademark, and the only real reference calling audiences back to this century is the comical mention of an ATM machine. But this nostalgia appears to offer a more primitive playing field for the characters. The fancy digital packages that worked for characters in Disturbia, for example, are of no use in this dusty arena. They're not even an option. But perhaps the most effective device in this film are characters cut from a more convincing reality. Lewewlyn Moss is an intelligent man who suspects early on that someone, whether dealer or the law, will come for his claim and he is quite adept in protecting himself. Perhaps his only idealism is that he is convinced he can killed Chigurh.
Chigurh, on the other hand, is the unfathomable mold; the man without conscience. And worse, he seems indestructible in ways that suggest nothing will end as we expect, much to the chagrin of audiences expecting easily manageable explanations and showdowns as the final marker in this narrative spectrum. That is not to say that we are left with overwhelming complexities and uncertainties. But, the audience will have to do some of their own work to understand how this tale ends and it almost requires abandonment of typical frames of moral logic.
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