#1 — No Country For Old Men (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2007)
After all the words I’ve tapped out in the name of this ongoing project, this public exercise in grappling with the films that have meant the most to me, spoke to me most truly and forcefully these past ten years, it’s strangely difficult to come to the title at the top of the list. All the explanations and opinions and justifications of the previous forty-nine essays are, in some ways, just a precursor to this. Such is the imposing stress of that slender digit, that number one. To anoint this the greatest, the best, the favorite, or whatever near synonymous term you choose, of the past ten years begs a daunting question. What do I love about No Country For Old Men?
It starts with the story itself, adapted faithfully from Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel, a page-turner so terse that it could have been handed out on the set in the event that the scripts went missing. Set in a desolate corner of Texas in 1980, the story involves a leather-tough, laconic Vietnam veteran named Llewelyn Moss who stumbles upon the site of a drug deal gone bad in the desert. He finds bullet-riddled trucks, a few corpses and a satchel stuffed with money, the last of which he gladly claims for himself. He also finds a victim on his way to dying but not quite there yet, which haunts him and sends him back to the crime scene in the middle of the night to deliver some water to soothe the man’s suffering. It’s an act of kindness that brings all manner of mayhem down upon him, a storm led by the seemingly unstoppable man-hunter named Anton Chigurh.
That role is played by Javier Bardem, who does nothing short of delivering a performance that is instantly iconic. From the moment he arrives on screen, you simply know that this is the stuff of movie legend, the sort of performance that you’ll be watching in clip packages of cinematic greatness for as long as such diversions exist. He commands the screen with an almost inhuman menace, a piercing intelligence and a grinding impatience for those who bore him with their weakness and ineptitude, a population that comprises just about everyone. He lives by his own set of rules and warped sense of honor. No threat is idle, no comment offhand. Anything he says he’ll do is a rock-solid pledge which can only be undone by fate itself. It’s a great character to begin with, and Bardem embodies the role. Underneath a bad haircut and behind alert eyes that serve as a window to a dangerous electricity sparking in his brain, he embodies this man that is pure force. After watching the performance it’s tempting to try it out, to roll “friendo” off the tongue like he does, just to see if you can taste the genius of it.
It’s so good and so dominating that it’s easy to lose sight of how much great acting is contained within the film. Josh Brolin is revelatory as Llewelyn, taking a role that’s highly internalized, built off of short, sharp one-liners as much as anything else, and signaling the reservoirs within the man. You get a sense of the decency that sends him back to a place he knows is dangerous, and the weakness that will be his eventual undoing. Kelly Madonald plays his wife Carla Jean with a tremulous concern, a preemptive exhaustion at the trouble that looms and a welling certainty that there’s no way out of the mess that’ll get here. Tommy Lee Jones plays a lawman investigating the case, watching the problems unfold from a step or two behind the action, and slowly, surely buckling under the weight of a world that changing in ways that he just can’t fathom. Decency is slipping away, and increasingly feels helpless, unable to do much more than slowly shake his head at the awfulness of it all. Though the parts are briefer, there’s equally strong work further down the cast list, including Woody Harrelson as a droll bounty hunter who tried to warn Llewelyn about the full extent of Chigurh’s formidable power, and Garret Dillahunt as a deputy working with Jones’s sheriff, bringing an amusing untainted eagerness to his investigative efforts. Out of all the great moments in No Country For Old Men, few delight me quite as much as Dillahunt riding his horse around the detritus of the drug deal gone bad and verbally speculating about how the conflict escalating with the simple and perfect phrase, “And then, whoa…differences…”
There’s a lot of praise to be doled out for the film, but the litany of great contributors must begin and end with the names Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. They’ve presided over a long list of exceptional films, but there’s something especially gratifying about their efforts on this one, perhaps because of the happy schism of seeing the men who’ve made their reputation largely on inspired excess craft of a film that is a model of shrewd discipline. Clearly responding to the restraint of McCarthy’s original work, the Coens deliver their leanest, tightest film since their debut, Blood Simple. McCarthy undoubtedly gave them great material to work with, but it was up to them to shape it into a movie with its own energy, its own identity, a task that’s more difficult than it might seem, as evidenced by the massive number of great books, including those penned by McCarthy, that have been transformed into mediocre films. The Coens largely achieve this through focusing on the most important, and yet often neglected or woefully under-realized, responsibility of a filmmaker: telling the story visually. Whether it’s a silhouette of a truck on a distant hillside or the chilling shadows creeping in from the crack beneath a closed door, the Coens continually find clean, novel ways to convey the most important information in the film. They don’t feel the need to explain everything directly, but the intricacies of the film should only be a mystery to those who aren’t really paying attention, or at least those who have been so decisively driven away from the beautiful vernacular of cinematic narrative by brain-dead, bludgeoning spectacles that excuse their shortcoming in the name of entertainment that they can no longer recognize the craftsmanship of true masters.
So what do I love about No Country For Old Men? That’s easy.
(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)