Most characters are lucky to make it out of a Coen Brothers film alive. For laughs, the brothers run their co-stars’ dead bodies through wood chippers. For yucks, a guy’s hand gets stuck to a window sill with a sharp knife.
It’s dark humor, lost on the average moviegoer, I suppose, but usually funny to those who enjoy it. I’m one of them, so I try to see whatever Joel and Ethan throw at us. We’re the kind of people who appreciate the comic potential of a 9mm slug between the eyes (look, it’s just a movie, all the actors go home without a scratch).
Alas, the “every slit throat is good for a few chuckles” vibe that gave us “Miller’s Crossing” and “Fargo” seems dead and buried in “No Country for Old Men.” The Coens seem to have lost their sense of humor in regards to the inevitability of death. There’s no cheating it, they’re telling us, and the harder you try, the more you hurry it along.
Death stalks the scraggly hills of southwest Texas in the human form of Anton Chigurh, a man with one purpose: to return $2 million in drug money to its rightful owners. Killing anybody who gets in his way is just his quirky way of upholding his exacting professional standards.
Somehow a botched drug deal has turned into a border-country bloodbath. One intrepid (though badly shot-up) Mexican drug runner wanders off with a satchel full of hundred-dollar bills, then dies. About a quarter mile behind him are a half-dozen dusty four-wheel-drive pickups full of yet more shot-dead drug traffickers.
A hunter who can’t shoot straight named Llewelyn Moss happens upon the trucks and their deceased occupants first, then tracks down the guy with the case o’ cash. Right here you want those guys from “Mystery Science 3000” wisecracking, “cool, he’s from that parallel universe where things go good for the guy when he decides to keep the money.”
Whatever planet Mr. Moss is from, he does defy the common sense handed down by every novel, movie, short story and soap opera episode from the time of Aesop to future media forms as yet uninvented: Keeping the money ruins your life.
As expected, things get increasingly complicated — and violent — for Llewelyn Moss. Death, that is, Mr. Chigurh, is after him with a vengeance you’d think might better be reserved for whoever cures cancer or AIDS.
As cinema, it’s a solid film with strong performances from Josh Brolin (who looks uncannily like his dad) as Moss and Javier Bardem as Chigurh, who carries the trademark Coen Brothers homicidal smirk throughout.
Tommy Lee Jones plays a Texas lawman who should be trying to do something about all the unfolding mayhem, but isn’t. Woody Harrelson is sort of tossed in there for no obvious reason.
The story is based on something by Cormac McCarthy, who writes novels about tough guys who soldier on through ceaseless carnage because, well, soldiering on through ceaseless carnage is just what they do. Against formidable odds — and with a formidable disregard for punctuation — McCarthy’s novels succeed impressively. I’ve read a bunch and liked them all.
His books are usually meditations on the bleak corners of the human character. Not funny, or ironic, or sarcastic. Tough, you might say, like the West itself, where most of his stories unfold.
The Coens, in contrast, make movies about fools and the blood-soaked consequences of their their folly (except for “O Brother Where Art Thou,” which had fools aplenty, but not much blood. It’s my favorite Coen brothers film).
I might need to see the movie again to be sure this coming together of Coens and McCarthy really works. The movie is stylish, beautifully photographed, peppered with authentic-sounding West Texas twang. It has McCarthy’s characteristic rough dudes doing what they must.
For now, though, the movie seems not quite amusing enough for spot in the Coen cannon, and the characters are not quite enduring enough to be authentic McCarthy-esque protagonists.
But if it makes me want to see it twice, “No Country for Old Men” must have something going for it.
(Wow, this pic just won Best Picture).