There’s been a distinct moral connotation to the praise pooling and caking around Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men during its half-year on the festival circuit. Their command of the medium has often, over the course of their career, been dismissed as merely ironically distanced “deconstruction” (“topics are incredibly unimportant to them — it’s structure and style and words,” ex-collaborator Barry Sonnefeld tells David Edelstein in New York). Now, it’s “economical” (Nick Schager, Slant), in the humble service of another’s words, thus “honor[ing his] serious themes.” (Todd McCarthy, Variety.)
Those weighty words are, of course, Cormac McCarthy’s, whose 2005 novel is the film’s source. The clarity of premise affirms a highbrow expedition into the wilds of genre: in 1980, on the Texas side of the Mexican border, Marlboro Man Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) accidents upon a suitcase full of drug money, takes the suitcase full of drug money, and runs, skirting both Light (in the person of Tommy Lee Jones’s Sheriff Bell) and Darkness, in the shifting-shadowed form of the “lobos” trying to recoup the money, most particularly Javier Bardem as the mop-topped, cattle gun-wielding Man in Black Anton Chigurh. Chigurh is a nihilist: he believes in nothing (nothing, Lebowski!) except the randomness of the lives he, purring, ends — a fatal fatalist. Surveying the scorched earth in Chigurh’s wake, or in conversations with his wife back at the old homestead, Bell schmoops over the erosion of the sturdy, meaningful society we thought we were winning the West to make, and his own antiquation.
Bell’s more explicitly conservative lines have been excised or reassigned, and Jones’s performance, bone-weary and teary-eyed, reads more clearly than McCarthy’s version as simply befuddled. In depoliticizing the book, the Coens favor a more elemental, but still fundamentally hidebound, morality. You say enduring archetype, I say unquestioned assumption: not to sound out the title of the movie syllable-by-syllable or anything, but this story of American order and chaos doesn’t exactly take place in a country whose women are active figures in its mythology. Theirs is but to keep the hearth warm for their man (Tess Harper as Mrs. Bell), whose corresponding duty it is to shield them from the wilderness (Kelly Macdonald as Mrs. Moss). The Coens once built a knotty, tragicomic world around a character as complex and ultimately capable as the pregnant policewoman Marge Gunderson — but it’s only now, having (not quite) synced their moral compass with an Oprah’s Book Club author, that they’re supposed to have grown up? I’d also dispute the notion that the gravity of the violence here is something that the glib Coens had to be taught — a decade before McCarthy’s loosing of Chigurh, the Coens cast Peter Stormare as Fargo’s own snow-cold killer with a silly accent, whose acts were all the more chilling for happening offscreen, and inspired gasps all the more strangled for being choked-back laughs.
Still, the strengths of No Country, and the filmmaking, are as complete as they are precedented. The true, blood-simple value of this efficient, classical thriller may come into much sharper focus if a certain rumored production ever thunders into town: an adaptation of McCarthy’s westward opus Blood Meridian, under the direction of Ridley Scott.