‘the mousy girl screams violence, violence’ (Of Montreal)
Anton Chigurh’s (Javier Bardem) appearance screams a type of violence that will skillfully elude anyone who he comes in contact with. The only problem for them (except for a feisty receptionist, who is saved unknowingly by a flushing toilet) is that they do not survive his flipped coins or incisive cattle-gun bullets once his monstrosity manifests. What’s more, they do not see their death coming because they presume Chigurh follows the same set of conventional rules they live by. Brilliantly directed by the Coen brothers (Joel & Ethan), ‘No Country for Old Men’ is a thrilling expose on the changing value of violence and the slow realization of such.
Adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel, the film settles into its 1980 West Texas landscape poetically and, in the form of the local sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (the ever solid Tommy Lee Jones) philosophically. Bell is an ‘old school’ lawmaker, the type of man who recognizes that his title must elevate his crime-solving techniques above that of the ordinary citizen or even his deputies. It is among these groups that his remarks come off as crisp and all-knowing. Bell though is getting older and sees the signs of a change that will leave him behind so when a series of ghastly murders take place in his town, the sheriff is understandably agitated.
He has good reason to be. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) discovers a stash of cash ($2 million), heroin and a ton of dead Mexicans after an obvious deal gone awry and decides to take the money. This being a moral issue within itself isn’t a concern of the film and that all parties involved play along these lines mirrors the nature of change we all deal with and weigh in on a daily basis. Sheriff Bell can make the seismic shift of values in order to pursue Moss because he realizes immediately that there’s deeper trouble brewing. Petty crime is thus put on the backseat by the law but in the shape of Chigurh (a fantastic Bardem, who has crafted the best serial killer since Hannibal Lecter) it spurs on his more virulent action. Chigurh moves with the swiftness of a man assured already of victory but he is aided with a tracking device that never fails to do its job.
The two go hand in hand and even spills over towards those trapped in the path of his objection. Chigurh takes no prisoners and only a fateful flip of a coin save some. He gives the illusion of choice to those destined for execution but those who weren’t really in his path do get a real choice. Given the frugal, moralistic writing style of Cormac McCarthy (I admit freely to not liking his hyped-to-death ‘The Road’) the transformation by the Coen brothers of thought and idea to the screen is nothing short of spectacular with their writing and directing credits. The attention to detail is sheer poetic and, like the film itself, volatile: Chigurh shoots Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) while the telephone rings and then speaks to Moss mindful to lift his legs as Wells’ blood spreads thickly on the floor.
Of course, it is the hunt and anticipated showdown of the two that make the film so gripping. The more Moss runs the quicker Chigurh tracks him down. Unlike Sheriff Bell who must piece their actions after the fact, Chigurh has the luxury of Moss knowing the extent of his violence and what he will do to get back the stolen cash. Their telephone conversation is chilling and the affect it has on Moss and his family is long-lasting. He, like Bell, underestimates the opponent initially only to regret it forever. His wife however recognizes her doom immediately. Played with great affectation by Kelly MacDonald, Carla Jean personifies innocence caught up in strife by way of association. When Chigurh finally reaches to her, she is resigned but still tells him that he has a choice in the matter. It’s a poignant moment, one that Bardem brilliantly retorts that he has promised Moss to ‘deal’ with his wife. He walks out of the house and what happens next really spins our perception of societal justice out of context.
The beauty of the film though lies in its conviction that one cannot simply repudiate violence at one’s own peril but that we have to acknowledge its presence as a way of life. Sheriff Bell realizes the enormity that faces him and has no option but to admit openly that the level of crime is beyond his handling. Chigurh is the killer of a new time, one that can walk away unscathed to fight new battles or at least pay his way out of complicity. He, not the law, is the one with his hand on the pulse of this new world. That makes ‘No Country for Old Men’ frighteningly real and a modernistic take on the evolutionary process of crime that will likely smudge our paranoid lives, one way or the other.