No Country for Old Men

In many ways, it seems like the Coen brothers are aiming to go back to the “Fargo” well here. Switch the snowy Midwest for dusty West Texas, and you’ll have a good sense of what “No Country for Old Men” is like. You have a protagonist who schemes his way into getting his hands on a satchel full of cash, somewhat foolishly overlooking the fact that greed often attracts violence. You have a psychopathic, unpredictable killer who aims to grab the money for himself, or maybe he’s just an unfeeling predator with a curious set of principles. And then you have a good old cop who just doesn’t understand all this greed and violence.

Stylistically of course, there are some more similarities, though those aren’t as much “Fargo”-specific as Coen staples: cleverly staged outbursts of violence, quirky characters, offbeat humor, hard-boiled dialogue, a mix of the mundane and the iconic… What is indeed more specific to “Fargo” is the use of wide open spaces. There are also some major differences, though, notably a slower pace and an embrace of silence. Whereas almost every Coen flick is full of music, there’s almost none here, it being replaced by the sound of high plains wind.

And then there’s the fact that, for long stretches, this is basically an action movie. Again, outbursts of violence happen in every Coen brothers picture, but save for a slightly perplexing epilogue, “No Country for Old Men” is an almost non-stop series of chases and shoot-outs. After stumbling upon a bunch of dead Mexicans, a 4X4 full of “brown dope” and that aforementioned satchel full of cash, Vietnam war veteran Llewly Moss (Josh Brolin) finds himself on the run from them dope-running Mexicans’ buddies as well as lone hit-man Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), all of whom are looking for the money and to kill whoever took it. Meanwhile, local Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is looking to stop all this mayhem but feels rather powerless about it…

Since it premiered at Cannes, a lot of critics have been calling the Coen’s latest a masterpiece, but I have to disagree. It’s a solid film, brilliantly crafted and full of memorable moments, but there’s an emptiness to it that bothered me. I don’t mean moral emptiness, this comes with the territory, but more of a lack of character, of personality. Brolin, Bardem and Jones are all great, which goes a long way, but their characters still feel flat. To go back to the “Fargo” comparison, Llewlyn doesn’t have the pathos of Jerry Lundegaard, and the Sheriff is nowhere near as endearing as Margie was. As for Chigurh, he is as disturbing as the murdering bastard Peter Stormare played in “Fargo”, but without a Steve Buscemi to play off each other, it’s not quite as engaging.

Still, if you’re not looking for a “Fargo”-level masterpiece but just for a badass modern Western, “No Country for Old Men” delivers plenty on that level. What the characters lack in personality, they make up in killing/surviving instinct. Most of the movie truly is a game of cat and mouse between Brolin and Bardem, and all of their confrontations are intense as hell.