Some books practically cry out from the shelves, "film me". Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men is one of those. It’s a lean novel, all plot, with spare dialog coiling through it like a sidewinder in the desert. You can read it in just a few hours. For the most part, it stays out of the characters’ inner lives and simply observes their behavior and records their hard-baked, pithy Texas talk.
The smartest thing a filmmaker can do with a gift like that is to film it straight. Luckily, it was Joel and Ethan Coen who got hold of this material. The Coen brothers are auteurs; twenty years ago, they would have jazzed everything up. But now, their sensibility is so evolved, they have nothing left to prove; and they are so in tune with McCarthy, its as if they wrote the novel, or he shot the film.
In certain scenes in the film, you may find yourself flashing back to the Coen’s earlier masterpiece, Fargo. Once again we have a local sheriff – here named Ed Tom, played by Tommy Lee Jones – who is called to a crime scene of such wanton violence, it’s almost surreal. There is a ring of SUVs in the desert, and a half-dozen bodies, including a dog, all riddled with at least three different kinds of bullets. There is a pair of bodies shot at a later time, execution style. This is clearly a drug deal gone wrong; but where are the drugs and the money?
The money – and it turns out there’s two million dollars of it in a satchell – is in the hands of Llewellen Moss, played by Josh Brolin, churlish but with a sense of black humor. He came upon the SUV disaster while shooting game. Everybody was dead; surely the money doesn’t know where it came from.
But in taking the money, and performing an act of kindness after the fact, Moss has brought upon himself and his loved ones the wrath of an evil so pure, so uncompromised, it may in fact be the arm of fate itself. It would like to think so; that’s how it excuses its own existence. Whether it is correct is the theme of the film.
It is a man, if you can call him that; better to call him a being. His name is Anton Chigurgh. Like Schwarzenegger’s terminator, he moves implacably forward, homing in on his target. Locked doors mean nothing to him; bodies fall where he walks the earth. He is even willing to stroll right into the arms of a police station.
So there is your narrative triangle: Moss on the run; Chigurgh close behind; and Ed Tom, so close to Chigurgh that he actually drinks from a milk jug Chigurgh has left behind on a coffee table, the bottle still sweating with condensation. This is a similar structure to Fargo, but here more reduced. Only a structure that pure could sustain the film’s final twenty minutes, where it feels like anything could happen, anything at all.
Where the film goes, without telling you anything, is deeper into Ed Tom. Tommy Lee Jones creates a character who goes all the way down to this boots – a weary man facing the end of his career, and the possibility that it was all for nothing. What a run the actor has had. From his brilliant western The Three Burials of Melqiades Estrada (which he also directed, in 2005), to his wounded, cornered, dangerous character in In The Valley of Ellah , to Ed Tom in No Country For Old Men : what other actor’s face is more care-worn, more able to evoke pathos, steely resolve, and sudden anger, more fascinating to watch?
As much as I admire the film – and I do, I really do – a part of me, perhaps uncharitably, was also longing for a freer, more surprising interpretation. As good as they are at manufacturing suspense, the Coens take no chances. Ironically, by being so faithful, they have produced a work a little too perfect. So what. See it anyway.