Johnny, Get Yer Gun: No Country For Old Men

Twenty-three years after their collaborative film debut, Blood Simple, and seven years from the last break of comedy productions with The Man Who Wasn’t There, writing-directing brother team, Joel and Ethan Coen, return to the noir genre with an unflinching adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel, No Country for Old Men. The story unfolds on the parched terrain of isolated, southwestern towns so typical to these stories of greed and consequence. These are the borders of hell. The place where righteous humanity is scarce.

“The Old-Timers never even used to carry guns…” begins the melancholic narration of Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) as he recounts how town sheriffs in small towns once conducted business. Bell is a helpless character in the wake of what he considers to be an emerging, uncontrollable taint of Man that has ruled obsolete the methodologies of the Old Timers. A taint that has ruined the moral certainties that guide the law: the clear difference between right and wrong. Good and bad. Though, even Bell, who is nearing retirement, is reminded that the taint is no novelty of the human condition. “This world is hard on people,” his old friend, another ex-Sheriff gruffly tells him.

While hunting antelopes in the mountains, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles across the failures of Mexican heroine deal and explores the dismal remains of something like a circled wagon train. The ground is covered with bullet casings and shotgun shells. Bodies lay in pools of blood drawing flies. Dust covered trucks are covered in bullet holes and shattered glass, some of the drivers laying slumped over the wheel. And amidst the carnage, remains an unclaimed satchel full of money that Moss quietly collects.

Moss is not the typical noir protagonist. Nothing in his character suggests much previous innocence, nor even real moral judiciousness towards the choices that set events in motion. He does not hesitate over his claim, has such a matter-of-fact approach to his gamble. But, one’s own greed will always pose a threat to his survival.

And Moss’s chances for survival are particularly slim against the likes of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardeem), the black-hearted personal reaper who wants his money back. He’s a guy who would fit the line Donald Pleasance once used to refer to young Michael Meyers in the first Halloween: “He had the blackest eyes. The Devil’s eyes.” As Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), the federal drug agent tracking Chigurh, explains to Moss who is hospitalized after his first face-to-face confrontation the predator, this is not a man to be reasoned with. “He won’t care if you return the money. He’ll kill you just for inconveniencing him.”

The story of the greedy man turned drug dealer’s prey has been told countless times before and yet, Joel and Ethan Coen have produced a film of such immediate applause (already achieving a top 40 spot in the IMDb top 250 movies list as of this writing). Of course, part of the draw has to do with the reputation the Coen brothers have made for themselves. A long resume of solid films with a great cast. This particular film draws on the the common love affair for retro atmospheres that directors like Quentin Tarantino have made a trademark, and the only real reference calling audiences back to this century is the comical mention of an ATM. But this nostalgia appears to offer a more primitive playing field for the characters. The fancy digital packages that worked for the young characters in chase during movies like Disturbia, for example, are of no use in this dusty arena. Hell, they’re not even an option.

But perhaps the most effective device in this film are characters cut from a more convincing reality. Llewellyn Moss is an intelligent man who suspects early on that someone, whether dealer or the law, will come for his claim and he is quite adept in protecting himself. Perhaps his only idealism is that he is convinced he can killed Chigurh, though this may just be something he tells himself rather than sincerely believes. Chigurh, on the other hand, is of an unfathomable mold; the man without conscience. And worse, he seems indestructible in ways that suggest nothing will end as we expect, much to the chagrin of audiences expecting easily manageable explanations and showdowns as the final marker in this narrative spectrum. Some have called it anticlimactic. But that is not to say that we are really left with any overwhelming complexities and uncertainties, save interpreting Bell’s final monologue. But, the audience will have to do some of their own work to understand how this tale ends and it almost requires abandonment of typical frames of moral logic.