The Magazine

These Guns for Hire

The Coen brothers score another point for nihilism.

Dec 10, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 13 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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No Country for Old Men

Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

No Country for Old Men is a frontrunner for this year's Academy Award, and it exudes every quality that attracts present-day Oscar voters.

As the latest work from the fraternal writing-directing team of Joel and Ethan Coen, it has impeccably hip provenance. As an adaptation of a novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning, MacArthur Genius, and Oprah Book Clubber Cormac McCarthy, it reeks of self-conscious literary prestige and accessible bestsellerdom at the same time. Perhaps most important, No Country for Old Men wags a moralist's finger at the extreme violence it depicts in such loving and specific detail. It shares this tsk-tsking attribute with Fargo, the only other Coen movie to find particular favor with Academy voters.

The Coens do not apply such disapproval with any consistency in their movies, as they usually treat violence--a mainstay in their pictures, even comedies like The Ladykillers--as the occasion for flip nihilism or outright slapstick. Clever boys they are, though, and they know when it is a propitious moment to don the pince-nez and look down with appalled horror at a spectacle they themselves have created, and might, on another occasion, set to a jaunty oom-pah-pah.

In No Country for Old Men, a contract killer goes on a rampage in an especially barren and depopulated corner of Texas. His name is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) and he is yet another of the screen's limitless supply of flawless, brilliant, absurdly accomplished psychopathic murderers. He possesses perfect knowledge of the habits and behaviors of the people he is stalking. He is never wrong. He never makes a false move. He can even operate on himself.

Why he goes on this rampage, and in whose service, doesn't concern either the Coens or McCarthy, whose novel they have adapted faithfully. They are not concerned with plot in the conventional sense, or character development, or much of anything else except technique: in McCarthy's case, the writerly challenge of turning every page incarnadine with only words, and in the case of the Coens, how to make a film that is (for at least half its running time) entirely silent both watchable and engrossing. They succeed in surmounting these technical challenges, and that is why McCarthy has won a Pulitzer and why the Coens may win an Oscar. But both on the page and on screen, No Country for Old Men is spectacularly pointless.

Though there is some talk toward the end about how drug-related crime has profoundly altered the American landscape--turning it into Yeats's "no country for old men"--both the movie and the novel are so purposefully divorced from any kind of recognizable social reality that they seem almost abstract. It is nearly impossible to tell that the story takes place in 1980, rather than the present, because the Texas hill country setting is so barren and devoid of human beings.

A series of unpleasant things happen to four people: to Chigurh himself, a taciturn Vietnam vet named Moss (the splendid Josh Brolin) and his wife, and a sheriff named Bell (Tommy Lee Jones, who has given this performance 47 times already). It all centers around some sort of drug deal gone bad. A group of Mexicans have been left to die in the brush. A suitcase with $2 million in cash is there with them. Moss, who is out hunting when he stumbles across the site of the Mexican shootout, finds the suitcase. He is an intelligent and resourceful man, and thinks he can manage to keep the suitcase for himself.

The problem is that he is being trailed by Chigurh, who has been brought in by two men in suits to help clean up the mess. For no discernible reason, Chigurh puts bullets in their heads. Later he kills two other men in another city who apparently worked with the ones he killed earlier. Then he kills a few more people. Sometimes Chigurh uses a gun. Other times he uses an oxygen tank with a nozzle that delivers compressed air.

He is very frightening, even though he has a Prince Valiant haircut. He stops at a gas station and threatens the owner by flipping a coin and demanding the man call heads-or-tails for his life. It is a powerful and portentous scene, but like most of No Country for Old Men, it seems set in some amalgam of The Twilight Zone and Waiting for Godot. The Twilight Zone aspect gives the scene an unsettling kick; the Godot evocation offers pretentious viewers the illusion that they are watching something meaningful.

Sheriff Bell is trying to figure out what is happening, but he is a small-town lawman and not equal to the task of dealing with Chigurh. But given the supernatural prowess McCarthy and the Coens have bestowed on Chigurh, it would take a combination of Sherlock Holmes, Porfiry Petrovich, and Professor Van Helsing to keep up.