Bloodier, less simple
In ‘No Country for Old Men’ the Coen brothers return to Texas and the noir-western hybrid of their first film ‘Blood Simple‘. An adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s equallly bloodythirsty and apocalyptic novel of the same name, the film captures the spirit of the author’s work while providing a platform for their restlessly innovative use of film style.
Like many of McCarthy’s novels, ‘No Country for Old Men’ fuses the Western genre with lyrical ruminations on the murderous nature of the American border country. The Coens have captured the mythological heart of the book, its ghostly and brutal landscapes, the fear and resilience of his protagonists, their dreams and fatalism. They have managed to marry this mood to a theme common to both Blood Simple and their best film, Fargo: the absurdity of the criminal mind and what man is prepared to do to himself and other people for money.
Unlike Fargo, however, and much of the Coen’s work, ‘No Country for Old Men’ is relatively humour-free. Having disappointed with their recent forays into screwball comedy (the unspeakable ‘Intolerable Cruelty‘ and the lacklustre ‘Ladykillers‘), the Coen’s have produced probably their most sombre, pessimistic and gruesomely violent films to date. The funniest thing about the movie, in fact, is Xavier Bardem’s ridiculous haircut, but the joke stops there. Bardem’s Anton Chigurh is a cold-blooded screen villain to compare with the very nastiest in cinema. A relentless sociopath with seemingly no compassion whatsoever, he is guided by dark, fatalistic principles hinted at but not made explicit during the film.
What is particularly striking in the film is the absence of music to heighten its dramatic tension. Thus the suspense of the principal cat-and-mouse chase is propelled purely through film technique, an incredible acheivement. This cleverly mirrors Anton Chigurh’s calm, almost robotic pursuit, and the silent deadliness of the landscape.
The plot twists and turns, becoming less predictable and harder to follow logically as the film unfolds, to its deliberately perplexing conclusion. Even what seem at first to quite illogical and random turns of events are imbued with an eerie significance and seem crafted to serve the sole purpose of messing with the viewer’s head.
Like the vast black clouds hovering over the plains early in the film, the film brilliantly recreates the apocalyptic mood of McCarthy’s books; the feeling that the evil in men goes beyond the individual but resides somewhere elementally in the earth. It is a pessimistic vision of the world as seen through Tommy Lee Jones’ jaded but compassionate hangdog eyes. He is perfect for the film, with a craggy, gnarled face – a landscape in itself – that was made to play a character in a McCarthy adaptation. A chilling and unsettling film, it’s the Coen’s best since the Big Lebowski.