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The Necessary Evil in The Coen Brothers’s No Country For Old Men (2007) April 24, 2008

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Hollywood, Literature.
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Written for the Screen and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin
Based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell’s narration in the beginning of No Country for Old Men, coupled with resplendent landscape shots of West Texas, serves as mental handcuffs that compel us to focus our attention to the film. Inside our brain, these shackles incite corresponding stimuli and resort to ignite multiple volts of interest that force us to look closely into what the Coen Brothers are trying to say. Perhaps not just look closely – – but look beyond, because what Joel and Ethan are doing is lure us in their web of necessary evil, which is both constrictive and fascinating, and leave us right there without anything to protect ourselves. The anticlimactic closure, or as what others might regard as the pointless meandering of the supposedly thrilling narrative, combines the qualities of innocuous filmmaking and genius mastery of form – like a splash of cold water in the Arctic, frantically quivering in every frame that foresees the end.

In the centre of that web is Anton Chigurh; unlike the lazy spider that waits for his preys before attacking them, Chigurh hunts them down like the virile god of dread, emotionless, heartless, ruthless, and decides their fate with either a toss coin or the use of his equally rigid weapon – – a captive bolt pistol. The bolt stunner perfectly represents Chigurh’s element of gripping darkness, that even myself as an audience easily gets afraid just by his mere presence or a quick glimpse of his sharp eyes looking at mine. It is a defining role for Javier Bardem, whose streak of worthwhile projects earns him critical acclaim; here he is whimsical, cannibalistic, temperamental, someone who never gives a damn about anything, and with Chigurh, he created the towering constellation of dissolution, the primal fear of getting exsanguinated, and the casual loss of good against evil. The way he keeps the film moving towards the very end, despite the bloody conclusion of the cat-and-mouse chase, defines classic characterisation. Surely, years from now “Chigurh” will be commonly used as a metaphor in popular text.

No question about it, No Country for Old Men has every right to be called great. Its ensemble of actors delivers astounding degree of prowess. Bardem never outshines Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones; the two have their own moments of splendor, like when Brolin returns to the scene of the massacre and runs when a group of Mexican spotted him, and dives into the river and the Mexicans’ flesh-hungry dog amusingly follows him – – he never cringes. Or every time Tommy Lee Jones talks without thinking, or thinks without talking, he turns words into verses of emotions – his subtlety carves histories of nostalgia and solitude. And the Coens are reliably on their top form – – every jigsaw falls into place. The pacing proves to be very impressive; the silence is shockingly golden; and the direction promises splendid entertainment.

But the brothers have failed to knock me off. I am almost on the verge of falling into their trap and believing all the theatrics of magnificence but unfortunately the quizzical atmosphere where the film decides to end makes little sense of the build-up that the three-fourths of the story has managed to achieve brilliantly. Perhaps that’s the point – – to present the climax that never happens, to argue a statement that is not arguable, and to kill someone who is already dead. It combusts rapidly but the fire gets put off in no time. Like sugar that is not sweet, or salt that is not salty – – the usual reaction is disappointment; but experienced people would call it “strange” for the lack of better term – – strange for it slips away from memory because too much thinking really kills. And I guess that’s what they want us to do – – not to overthink their film because thinking about it will do nothing sensible. Ethan Coen writes in “The Old Country”: In the beginning there was fear, a deep shadow that goes with the gaudy colors of early youth. With the exception of two words, this short story has nothing to do with Cormac McCarthy’s novel, except that for me it sums up the all-consuming effect of the film; with characters that never meet, all they have is their past – slowly vanishing from themselves. * * * *

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