'No Country for Old Men' Chases Its Literary Tale

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 9, 2007

I appreciate "No Country for Old Men" for the skill in the film craft. I understand "No Country for Old Men" for its penetrating disquisition on narrative conventions, and its heroic will in subverting them. I admire "No Country for Old Men" for the way it tightens its grip as it progresses, taking us deeper and deeper into a hellish world.

I just don't like it very much.

Derived from the hyper-violent Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, it's a high-end "literary" thriller that traffics as much in ideas as in thrills, sometimes to its own detriment. It follows as a Vietnam vet (the time is the '80s) out antelope hunting comes across a Texas drug deal gone bad. Bodies, guns, blood, flies and folly everywhere on the arid plains. He finds a huge chunk of money and makes off with it; alas, having promised a dying man a drink of water, he heads back, scotching his successful getaway. He is observed by other drug smugglers, and the chase begins.

You can't say it cuts to the chase. There was never anything to cut from to the chase. It's all chase, which means that it offers almost zero in character development. Each of the figures is given, a la standard thriller operating procedure, a single moral or psychological attribute and then acts in accordance to that principle and nothing else, without doubts, contradictions or ambivalence. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), the laconic vet who finds the stash, is pure stubbornness. His main pursuer, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem in Robert Wagner's haircut from "Prince Valiant"), is Death, without a pale horse. Subsidiary chaser Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) is Pride, or possibly Folly. Various Mexican gunmen show up pretty much in the role of pepper poppers, targets that pop up only to be shot down. Oh, and finally, Tommy Lee Jones appears in the role of Melancholy Wisdom; he's a lawman also trying to find Llewelyn but not very hard. He'd much rather address the camera and soliloquize on the sorry state of affairs of mankind, though if he says anything memorable, I missed it.

Of these characters, the resolute Moss is the most attractive, because he's tough, leathery, smart, doesn't say much and always seems to know what to do next. For Brolin, heretofore a minor hanger-on, this could be that mythical "major breakthrough" thing that actors are always dreaming about. Harrelson is also quite a striking figure, an overconfident "solver of problems" for Texas organized-crime interests, hired to take out one of the other chasers in a pointless subplot. But then he turns out not to have much to offer either his main antagonist or the story. His ending is inglorious. He's strictly all hat and no cattle.

But by far the strangest character, here as in the book, is the professional played by Bardem. Chigurh -- "chigger," a typhus-carrying mite -- is so strange he seems, in fact, not to come from the planet Earth. I suspect a lot of critics will be drawn to him, because as an actor Bardem delivers a one-note, laser-aimed performance that makes you love to hate him. He is, really, pure death; he frequently kills for no reason except to illustrate the principle of random cruelty in the universe, often deciding the fates of those he bumps into with a flip of the coin.

But he's a complete absurdity. To dress up his otherwise monochromatic personality, filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen (following novelist McCarthy) give him a couple of gimmicky weapons, strictly by the numbers. Both are ridiculous. The first is a slaughterhouse mechanism for killing beef cattle by driving a piston through the brain under the power of compressed air. This means -- now follow this -- he has to hang a 20-pound compressed-air tank around his neck, and it is secured to the cattle-killing device by an extremely vulnerable, even fragile, hose, a series of valves and tubes. And what does he do with such an awkward thing? He uses it to blow the locks out of doors that could just as easily be kicked in, and he uses it to terminate the extremely unwary who allow him to get up close and place it against the skull. Hmm, wouldn't the force of the piston knock the victim backward rather than penetrate the skull? And what happens if the victim is unwilling to stand still while this strange man and his contraption approach? And what does such a device offer over and above a simple silenced .22, ubiquitous in any underworld?

Then there's his sawed-off semi-auto shotgun. I don't want to go all gun-nutty on you, but there's a reason there aren't many around: To silence a shotgun you need a very big "can" (as the actual sound-suppression device screwed to the muzzle is called), which means they're difficult to hide and therefore of limited utility in gangster politics. But the Coen brothers don't care. Chigurh just walks around with this immense weapon that looks like a scattergun on steroids, and nobody seems to notice. And some thriller-consumers will note that when he actually fires the thing, the action doesn't cycle, and an empty shell doesn't eject. So what? you say, and if that's what you say, that's fine. But a lot of people in the audience will pick up on the inauthenticity of the weapon even if they don't quite know what's wrong, and it'll ruin the movie's illusion. Again, why? It's not like we're short of more practical suppressed weapons, such as pistols or submachine guns. It's a machine-gun-rich world, people. But what this trope represents is some movie know-nothings trying to make something "cool" for the movies without giving it much rigorous thought.

One argument could be made for the movie's integrity by way of the arcane narrative theories it employs. I don't buy it, but it could be made. It sets up a classic thriller situation, a particularly vivid hunter hunting a surprisingly capable man across a deadly landscape, used hundreds, perhaps thousands of times. It pauses time and again to emphasize the horror of the killer. By narrative convention then, the movie is building toward a confrontation between these two. We know it, we expect it, the rules of the thriller mandate its necessity. It represents the completion of the bargain the storyteller has made with us.

"No Country for Old Men" then vigorously subverts the convention. It's meant to be "ironic," with that big capital I. Instead it's unsatisfying, with a capital U. Nobody goes to the movies for the irony. They go for the satisfaction.

No Country for Old Men (120 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for extreme violence.

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