Hypnotized by No Country for Old Men

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Josh Brolin in No Country for Old Men

Take that title literally: This is No Country for Old Men. It may be no country for any life form more evolved than a Gila Monster. We're talking West Texas here, not far from the U.S.-Mexican border. The landscape is as bleak as the moon's dark side and its relatively few inhabitants lead lives that are scrubbed down to the basics. That is to say, it is pretty much kill or be killed in the Coen brothers adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's spare and unsparing novel.

Essentially the film, which is set in the 1980s, is a triangle. At its apex is a sweet-soul named Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin). Out hunting one day he come upon a whole bunch of dead guys, burned out cars and a stash of drugs and a couple million dollars. Obviously, a nefarious deal has gone very wrong and the young man sees no reason not to avail himself of its residue. He's madly in love with his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) and would like to buy her some nice things. He, however, reckons without Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who is an all-star psychopath. His preferred murder weapon is a pneumatic device the ranchers use to put livestock out of their misery and he sometimes asks his potential victims to flip a coin. If they call the toss correctly they live; if they don't they die. Across from him in McCarthy's radically simplified story structure is Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), the patient and taciturn local sheriff. He comes from a long line of lawmen, and is having trouble comprehending the rising tide of motiveless malignity in his jurisdiction. It has something to do with modernity creeping across his dimly drawn county line, though such abstractions are beyond Ed Tom's comprehension. Mostly, he's uneasily contemplating retirement.

What we have here is a classic Coen Brothers situation: like Fargo, Miller's Crossing or Blood Simple this movie is about the intrusion of hyperkinetic violence in a normally peaceful setting, a place where the inhabitants truly treasure the phlegmatic life and are profoundly puzzled by people who would disturb their peace. Does this make No Country for Old Men a black comedy of sorts? I suppose it does. But that's not a thought that occurs to you until the movie is over and you find yourself shaking your head and chuckling over the curiously exaggerated behavior you've just witnessed. Caught in the movie's grip, you are simply hypnotized by the damned thing.

Especially, I think, by Bardem. He's got a totally weird haircut and an eerily calm manner, smiling and soft-spoken. He is also an incredibly efficient killing machine. The shock of his sudden depredations — pow, you're dead — grants the movie some of its very curious rhythm. It has a rather calm and objective air about it most of the time. But whenever Bardem appears, something nasty starts twisting in your gut. He's about as perfect a representation of unambiguous evil as the movies have lately offered. And Brolin is his perfect foil. He's terrific as a totally twisted cop in American Gangster, but he's equally good as a totally innocent good ole boy here. All right, trying to make off with someone else's ill-gotten gains is maybe not entirely smart or entirely moral. But there's something pure and sweet about the young man, too, and a certain surprising shrewdness about him, too. He keeps managing to stay a lively, often imaginative, step ahead of his implacable pursuer untilÉ

Well, let's not go there. Let's pause for a few kind words about Tommy Lee Jones. He's the old man this hard country is wearing down, and there is in his performance an interesting element. He knows his time is past, but there's nothing elegiac in that awareness. There's a kind of calmness, a determination to go on behaving as he always has, without fuss, feathers or moral fervor. He plays what amounts to a classic America hero, but without once acknowledging the long line of such figures — in movie history his antecedents date back to silent pictures — that inform his character. No Country for Old Men, in the violence of the behavior it portrays, in the starkness of the moral conflicts it examines, has the potential to veer toward Tarentino-like hysteria. But the Coens are wintry and dead calm ironists, and their movie is finally less an assault on our sensibilities than a subtle — and possibly permanent — insinuation into our consciousnesses.