Summary: Existential, genre-slashing, disturbing cinema at its very best.
Review: Cinema gives us innumerable opportunities to vicariously experience fear. The raw reaction to the most basic of survival instincts is a large part of why we keep coming back for more. Most times, we opt for the proverbial roller coaster experience; the main characters, our conscious avatars, make it through alive, often by the skin of their teeth to intensify catharsis. Populist movies are structured to insure such satisfying escapes. If we want to take these animal emotions seriously, however, we need filmmakers capable of dropping the bottom out. While we’re physically safe, our psyches, so well-trained by common experience, are vulnerable to truly nightmarish twists. When filmmakers go this route, they tend to compensate by helping us identify with the killers over the victims. When the Coen brothers went for it, in their Best Picture adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘No Country For Old Men’, they balanced our sympathies nigh perfectly, creating a truly disturbing film.
Nihilism and justice collide in an unrelenting chase through Western Texas. Roger Deakins’ gorgeous and clear cinematography heightens the sense of you-are-there, and the Coens’ screenplay, with minimal dialog, exposes a multitude of procedures that the hunter and hunted use to stay in the game. Even in the film’s wide vistas, we feel the walls closing in, as the characters we identify with at a simple human level fight to survive. The hunter and antagonist, Anton Chigurh (played absurdly well by Javier Bardem), exhibits believable sociopathy and a moral code all his own. He’s a predator incomprehensible to his prey. In our introduction to the hunted, Llewellyn Moss (ditto by Josh Brolin), the filmmakers encapsulate this theme without saying a word. Llewellyn is a socially acceptable hunter, a creature who by virtue of intelligence and superior fire power preys on game from a comfortable physical and emotional distance. In short, in relation to pronghorn, Llewellyn sees himself the same way Anton relates to, well, anything. Doing his damnedest to put a stop to this cat-and-mouse game is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (ditto for Tommy Lee Jones), an aging lawman who views the unfolding chaos with due horror.
The plot mechanics, the $2 Million McGuffin and the why’s behind it all, take a backseat to the story’s inescapable present tense and ever-increasing violence. While other stories make a point to ensure the audience’s karmic satisfaction, the kernel of truth here is that, despite the best of intentions, evil continues to haunt the human race. The struggle here is cosmic, between the animal and spiritual natures of humankind. Predatory and survival instincts often overrule justice. Our higher ambitions, a fire in the night, pass from one generation to the next, keeping the cold, meaningless chaos from turning us all into Anton Chigurh. The Sheriff and Anton are almost absolute opposites, but they both answer to a code of ethics. The difference lies in empathy. True justice submits to and ensures harmonious coexistence, countering the lone wolf within us. Anton’s justice, whatever it is, is truly unknowable, because it belongs to him alone. It is therefore meaningless.
This is an example of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences making a, if not “the”, right choice. ’No Country For Old Men’ is probably the best picture on this subject. Being a Coen brothers film, it’s the height of craft, but what makes it special is how far they go in subverting genre expectations. ’No Country For Old Men’ defies convention and substitutes original story. This is a movie for cinephiles who like getting existentially scared out of their wits and making sense of their reaction. It’s not for the fainthearted or brainless. It’s too good at what it does.