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Miles and Miles of Texas:
No Country for Old Men

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Paramount Vantage)

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007



No Country for Old Men

Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen
(Paramount Vantage)

Reviewed by Nathan Kosub

No Country for Old Men is a great Texas film. It is great unequivocally, but Lone Star pride is a rare opportunity in Hollywood. Texas has always been a popular myth for directors, from the Texas-in-Utah of John Ford’s The Searchers to the Texas-in-Canada of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. Joel and Ethan Coen made their first film in Austin (Blood Simple) and cast Lubbock musician Jimmie Dale Gilmore as Smokey in The Big Lebowski (“Mark it eight, Dude”). But No Country for Old Men is a whole other state entirely.

Cormac McCarthy, whose 2005 novel the movie adapts, could own the sort of bumper sticker you buy at the Flying J on I-10 east to Houston: “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could.” That could be him in the accompanying caricature, cackling from his cab with a blonde in the camping trailer behind him. McCarthy penned his most popular work, All the Pretty Horses, in El Paso. No Country for Old Men takes place there, and in the small border towns nearby. The Coens’ adaptation has no corollary in their career, at least in the way I’ve always thought of it, as a hirsute mob of reasonless oddities.

“Speech has always been one of the glories of McCarthy’s fiction,” wrote the critic James Wood, who is right, but has probably never spent a day in El Paso. “He listens hard to Tennessean or Texan diction, and then reproduces it phonetically, with great, hospitable skill.” When it was released, the reviews for No Country for Old Men were backhanded, if not unkind, perhaps because McCarthy was first embraced by academics who can’t stretch out lectures on a genre piece like No Country as far as they can with a more ambiguous novel like Blood Meridian. Even Chip Kidd, who designs McCarthy’s dust jackets at Alfred A. Knopf, had an opinion; for the cover, Kidd chose an image of a marathoner in running shorts, out for a jog.

Like any great author, McCarthy deserves a kick in the shins for good measure. But No Country for Old Men is the wrong pair of legs. Too many people miss McCarthy’s sense of humor: The humor is the first thing you notice in the book, so it’s mostly to the Coens’ credit that they start the film on a lonely tone. More importantly, in a season of self-conscious, reductive rhetoric about politics and war, No Country is a poignant assessment of the senselessness of modern times.

The language that James Wood revels in need not be the way West Texans really talk. In fiction, truth to life matters less than a fantasy complete unto itself, which is why a smart book like No Country for Old Men is never an allegory, too. That accommodating impulse towards thoughtfulness, with which a story can encompass a war but still be about two million dollars in drug money stolen from the criminals who want it back, is the secret of the Coens’ translation.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), the man who finds the money first, is a Vietnam veteran. He goes hunting, chances on the aftermath of a bad drug deal, then hides his wife and runs from the man, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who is hired to retrieve the money. The film, like the book, takes place in 1980, which we realize only when Chigurh tells a man at a gas station the age of a coin on the counter. In 1980, the early Texas Rangers were dying, or recently dead. The younger generation — to which Llewelyn belongs — had gone to Vietnam.

The Coens are not the first to adapt a Cormac McCarthy novel. Billy Bob Thornton infamously tried to replicate the rhythm of All the Pretty Horses (his kingdom for the four-hour cut!). Thornton comprehended the myth-making but not the humor, and cast iconic faces like Sam Shepard in small roles. The Coens, instead, cast voices, and it is only a nice coincidence that everyone from McCarthy to myself probably imagined the voice of Tommy Lee Jones for Sheriff Ed Tom Bell.

It’s easy to believe that’s what drew the Coens to McCarthy: language, cadence, inflections. They also pay particular attention to the ephemeral aural trends of isolation: the sound of the highway in the courtyard of a Del Rio motel, a far freight train’s horn in the empty streets of Eagle Pass, the alterations in the tenor of a constant high plains wind in every outdoor location. The bullets still crack in the glass when they need to, just as the absence of noise permits the protagonist to hear a phone ring ominously through the walls.

But you can’t put the steam engine before the horse. In strictly cinematic terms, No Country for Old Men is a true specimen. Chock-full of genre precedents, the film navigates its 20th century with the grace of, well, a horse, picking her way through a field of dead. When Sheriff Bell and his deputy ride to investigate a floodplain crime scene, they do so on horses that belong to Bell’s wife. By 1980, horses were a sheriff’s luxury as much as a necessity; the truck goes back to the police department, and the horses to Bell’s corral.

Later, when Llewelyn is on the run, he opens the window of his hotel room to listen for anyone who might follow him on the street below. Instead of footsteps, Llewelyn hears the sound of Mexican music, maybe from the town square. John Wayne rides into Shinbone one night in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with the sound of Mexican music drifting in from a cantina next door. Rio Bravo is the same, with “El Degüello” dulcet in the air as Duke forages for his friends.

Thus No Country simultaneously subverts and reflects. In West Texas, there is no purer indication of the landscape’s isolation than the silhouette of a pair of boots on a man sitting alone beneath a single tree. Llewelyn even calls him “el último hombre,” and waits until he dies to approach him. Here, too, is the horror film’s essential nature: one frame of a truck parked on a ridge at night, followed by a second frame of a second truck parked beside it. When the lights on the second truck go bright, we’re running with Llewelyn towards the river.

But the movie’s revelation is its gentleness. Animals have a presence here, but in dogs and cats instead of horses. No metaphor for innocence (the only dog to engage Llewelyn attacks him on the banks of the Rio Grande), they participate as pilgrims and serve less as a contrast to the violence than a flattening of the reasons men impart to instinct.

“Hell’s bells,” says Bell’s deputy, “they even shot the dog.” The dogs, by and large, are unlucky. The cats less so. One at the hotel in Eagle Pass suffers an upturned bowl of milk. But when a character we have any reason to care about in the movie dies, we do not see a face at the moment of passing. McCarthy, in the novel, is not so kind. Even night clerks are given the dignity of privacy at death. It reminds us how rarely we see death day to day, in spite of the world’s rampages.

In other words, an arm in a woodchopper is not funny, but silly. The hat in Miller’s Crossing bears more than a passing resemblance to Forrest Gump’s feather, just as The Big Lebowski’s tribute to Busby Berkeley makes one wish for a Busby Berkeley number instead. If Barton Fink is a joke beside John Fante, what makes No Country for Old Men so good? How can a haircut like Anton Chigurh’s work, with the Coens’ history behind it?

The look was reportedly modeled on an old photograph of a brothel patron on the Texas-Mexico border, and Javier Bardem plays Chigurh like a timid man in a whorehouse. McCarthy’s Chigurh is manifest evil, but Bardem’s wrestles with an inner conflict he is not in control of. In the novel, Chigurh breaks into Llewelyn’s home and, finding it empty, drinks a bottle of orange soda from the refrigerator. In the movie, Chigurh drinks milk. When Bell arrives after Chigurh is gone, he pours a glass himself and drinks it slowly, staring at the same empty television screen. The milk reinforces Chigurh’s sensitivity, which makes his surprise at his victims’ resistance that much more touching. Almost like a child, except that Chigurh is all too aware of what he does.

Then there is Bell. Bell is the Western trope in LBJ ears, the last generation to shake its head at rudeness and poor manners. Bell eats sliced tomatoes with his breakfast, both at the café in town and at his home. Tommy Lee Jones wears a windblown expression through the film, more overwhelmed than even Woodrow Call in Lonesome Dove. “I always figured God would come into my life somehow,” Bell says. “He didn’t.”

Because technique has been so long at the forefront of their art, the Coens are in some way the Strunk & White of Hollywood. That is no compliment. It is why other reviews of this film mention the Coens before the movie, when No Country contains countless influences but few comparisons. It is technique at its most instinctive and storytelling at its most empathetic. Not really a Coen Brothers movie at all.

“The other thing is that I have not said much about my father, and I know I have not done him justice,” Bell says in one of the book’s interior monologues. “I’ve been older now than he ever was for almost twenty years so in a sense I’m lookin’ back at a younger man.” In the film, Bell is quick to articulate that this is especially so in dreams. It’s a dream he sees his father in, younger through the years.

In the novel, the dream is one of many things Bell keeps to himself, but he tells his wife about it in the movie. They sit at breakfast looking out a window that opens onto the plains. The old horror comes to mind, that nothing is sadder than losing your own child, and the long list of Chigurh’s victims — already half-remembered after only two hours — crowd this suspicion that the world’s purpose has eluded you. It is Tommy Lee Jones’ great moment in movies, just as the Coens’ is to have Bell’s wife there to hear it. We are aware of this even as we succumb to it, exhilarated by the last words of the man in the water beside us, with the shore an impossibly distant swim.



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