By Ray Pride
Admirers of Cormac McCarthy’s western-without-quotation-marks “No Country For Old Men” will find one terrific surprise when they see the movie adapted, produced and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen: it’s deeply faithful, darkly wounded and as taciturn as its origins. (The one moment I miss involves a couple of boys and a found pistol.)
Some movie reviewers since its Cannes debut, on the other hand, seem to misunderstand precisely what the Coens have wrought, suggesting that scads of loopy dialogue and pyrotechnic camerawork are the only marks of their recurring style. Instead, by contrast, “No Country” demonstrates the depths of their earlier work, or at least the intelligence that keeps their sarcasm (mostly) from sourness. Working with Roger Deakins, their usual cameraman, they shoot 1970 bordertown Texas with epic assurance, capturing men against the sky as well as they do a man’s or a woman’s foibles against the confines of the comedy frame. The casting is superb, but the notes each of the actors are allowed to search out and discover are what make “No Country For Old Men” at least within a well-hurled rock’s throw of a “masterpiece” as some writers have already gratefully dubbed this glory of pearlescent carborundum. (Dark. Dark and funny like the Bible is dark and funny.)
Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin, of the great smile, hardly given the chance to brandish it) is prowling the back roads and finds a pickup truck filled with a load of heroin and a valise with two million dollars in cash. The bodies of dead men and one dead dog that encircle the site ought to tip Moss off to the risks of running with any of the goods. But he takes the money, and the Coens provide several moments of Moss speaking to himself, and it’s that rare occasion when it doesn’t seem like screenwriter’s whimsy, or screenwriter’s folly: everything is in place.
Shit happens. Sheriff Bell, a weary, woebegone yet uncommonly loquacious Tommy Lee Jones, is not the threat. He is forever mystified by the ways of men and the ways of criminals when they are parted with their money. “Is this the mess?” a deputy asks. Sheriff Bell answers, “If it ain’t, it’ll do until the mess gets here.” The greatest threat comes from the hitman dispatched by the money, Chigurh, played with great, fearsome rationality by Javier Bardem. This is a man who does not know how insane he is, even when point-blank challenged to consider how insane he is. (He likes to offer his victims the chance to save their life on the basis of a coin toss.) Bardem wears a voluminous pageboy cut that makes this otherworldly psychopath even odder and, somehow, ever more comprehensible. It’s one of a wealth of small, observant details of the sort that the Coens deploy with customary aplomb. (It’s the thing you’re looking at that informs the way you look at it, all the way back to their first feature, “Blood Simple.”)
When Moss and his wife, Carla Jean, (the Scottish Kelly McDonald in a sterling West Texas turn) bicker on the couch as he halfway tells her what he’s done—”I’m fixin’ to do somethin’ dumber than hell” is a large bite of self-knowledge and clairvoyance—their body language is terrific: they sit beside each other, looking straightforward, but they’re not rigid, they’re not hateful, they’re slightly combative, but they’re a unit, a man-woman dialectic, a marriage and one that could last until Kingdom Come. Again: volumes in an instant. The right light in the right space on the right face. Brolin’s a funny, slangy, racy interviewee, but in a recent conversation, he could only muse, almost as reserved as Llewellyn Moss. “The incredible love they have between each other is huge, very much so. She’s incredible.”
Among Brolin’s many other credits are “The Goonies,” which he says comes up often, and he chuckles that he’d act in a mooted sequel, but only if the Coens were to make it. Brolin played one of the brothers in a New York revival of Sam Shepard’s “True West.” “I’ve always loved Sam. Sam was the one that told me about ‘No Country,’ he told me about the book. We were hanging out in Austin doing ‘Grindhouse,’ he said, ‘You gotta go read this book. It’s the most amazing book.’ So, y’know, I read it as a piece of incredible literature as opposed to a screenplay first, which I was very happy about. But no, doing ‘True West’ on Broadway, y’know, was great, because we got to switch parts. It keeps you interested—at least for me, I get bored too quickly. It’s nice to be frightened, to see if I can put it off or not.” Even in the company of great men like Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem, Brolin can pull it off, not a star performance so much as a great performance.
“No Country For Old Men” opens Friday.