December 13, 2007, updated March 23, 2008 -- “No Country for Old Men” is the latest effort by the Cohen brothers (“The Ladykillers” and “Intolerable Cruelty”). It is being hailed as one of the year's best films. This anti-Western set in the dusty southwest is pretty good for the first two acts, but it runs out of steam at the end with old men dreaming dreams of an afterlife and killers seeing their luck run out.
Javier Bardem (“The Sea Inside”) stars as Anton Chigurh a kind of ghostly killing machine who always seems to be a step ahead of whoever he is chasing, or whoever is chasing him. Hired to recover $2.4 million in drug money, he promptly kills his employers, a sheriff's deputy and a motorist. His favored weapons are a pressure-powered piston device used to kill cattle, and a shotgun equipped with silencer. His target is Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin of “American Gangster”). Moss picks up the case full of cash at the site of a shootout in the desert where a drug deal went bad. He just happened to stumble across the scene, but cleverly tracks down the one man holding the cash. The bad guys spot his truck and the chase is on.
The first part of the movie is an effective cat and mouse game between Chigurh and Moss. Trailing the two is the local sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones of “In the Valley of Elah”). He figures out what has happened and hopes to find Moss before he is killed. Also in on the action is another pursuer hired by drug dealers, Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson of “Natural Born Killers”). Chigurh is another matter, however. Bell is apprehensive about this relentless killer that is leaving a trail of blood through his county. Chigurh and the violent drug runners are a new dark force in his world. They operate recklessly. They play by a different set of rules than the ones he grew up with. Moss finally retires and dreams that his ancestors will light the way for him in the afterlife. He settles in for hope in the next life because there seems to be none left in this one.
The plot defies expectations at nearly every turn. Conflicts are set up and left unresolved. The case full of cash which seems to propel the action is just a MacGuffin. There is no final showdown between the opposing forces in this story. The plot burns itself out early and dies a lingering death. If there is a hero to this story at all, it is the anti-hero Chigurh, who remains true to his word. He alone seems uninterested in the money. He is a man who lives by his own values and rules. Those rules, however, result in the death of many people.
Chigurh is described as a “ghost.” In one scene, his reflection can be seen inside a motel room, but when the door is opened and the lawman steps inside, he is nowhere to be found, and the only window, the only other way out of the room, is locked from the inside. A ghost indeed. Chigurh is actually a bogeyman, a horror film cliché a soulless killing machine like Michael Myers in “Halloween” or Jason Voorhees in the “Friday the 13th movies.” I had a believability problem with Chigurh. This wouldn't have been a problem had this been a less realistic looking film, like a typical supernatural horror film, for instance. Javier Bardem would later win the Academy Award for best supporting actor for his role in this film. It is the least demanding Academy Award winning role I've ever seen. It is the equivalent of giving the same award to Arnold Schwarzenegger for his performance in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” It is the kind of non-acting role that practically anyone can do.
Unlike many recent films that argue for determinism, this film argues that the choices people make do matter. A man flips a coin and another's life depends on calling heads or tales correctly. Another man is given the chance to save his wife's life and he chooses not to save it. These are choices offered by Chigurh. In one case, he tells his victim, that the coin flip choice is “... the best I can do.” His victim replies “The coin ain't got no say in this,” but Chigurh says it does, and he's probably right. Even deciding not to choose is, in fact, choosing. Chigurh also reminds a potential victim that like himself, the coin traveled many miles and many years to get to that spot. This brings back the old idea of determinism. That is even more of an outdated philosophy than existentialism, which permeates the film. Haven't these people heard of chaos theory or the uncertainty principle?
In a way, Chigurh is a kind of Nietzschean hero who tries to impose his will upon the universe. He sets the rules and others ignore those rules at their peril. He says, repeatedly, “You have to choose.” Every one in the film does choose, one way or the other, often badly. The universe reminds Chigurh at the end that he really isn't in charge after all. In its final act, the film's philosophy degenerates into nihilism. All things are meaningless, all things were always meaningless. There never was a moral center holding things together. If this is true then why bother writing the book or making this film on which it is based? Maybe that is why the Cohen Brothers were laughing at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when they accepted the Best Picture Oscar for this meaningless film. The award itself was meaningless, further cheapened by the choice the Academy made. It was a giant joke on the Academy, but only the Cohen Brothers seemed to in on the joke. Everyone else was serious. Idiots.
Although this film has all the trimmings of an Old Western, complete with a sheriff and his deputy riding horseback across a desolate desert landscape, this story is decidedly post-modern. The values of the Old West, personified in Sheriff Bell, are pushed aside by darker forces, personified by Chigurh. This dark force operates outside the old moral universe. This dark tide is often referenced in the movie, particularly in one discussion about the collapse of civilization between Bell and another old time sheriff (Rodger Boyce) in El Paso. Yet Bell's uncle, Ellis (Barry Corbin of “In the Valley of Elah”), reminds him that this kind of chaotic evil has always been present, even long ago. The idea of frontier justice is just a myth. Ellis warns him, “You can't stop what's coming.” If this dark evil was always present, as Ellis said, then how is this any different? What is coming? Maybe it is really a second coming, “some rough beast, it's hour come round at last, slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.”
Some people mistakenly think this film argues that civilization is collapsing and that this is some kind of new phenomenon. The story told by Ellis of a lawman being shot down on his own front porch nearly 100 years earlier is a clear indication that the evil represented by Chigurh is nothing new. The idea that civilization is falling apart is nothing new. It has been around for 3,000 years or more. Nihilism is nothing new either. It has been around for a million years or more, as long as there have been human beings to think of such things. Nations rise and fall. That is what they do. Despite all that, civilization thrives and continues. Civilization has outlasted the Mongol hordes that swept out of Asia, it survived the barbarians who destroyed the original Roman Empire, it survived the Islamic hordes that destroyed the Eastern Roman empire, it survived World Wars I and II, which destroyed much of Europe, parts of Asia and most of Japan. Doomsayers, nihilists, they are old news. Sure, the American Century is over and is fading fast, but Europe, China and India are rising fast. Religious zealots will destroy millions of lives, but civilization will persist, and grow. Civilization always comes back stronger than it was before. It always has. This film rates a B.
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