Leave it to the Coens, denizens of the mundanely macabre, to create a villian so heinous, yet so methodically efficient (yes, even hired assassins have a work ethic) that you actually find yourself both titillated and repulsed by the mere fact that you are rooting for him to track down and kill his intended quarry. Okay, maybe that was just me. Sure, he likes to use a high-powered air gun to put holes through people's heads and at his flippantly morosest, flips a coin to decide the fate of someone unlucky enough to look his way, and yes, he does seem to get quite the bug-eyed satisfaction over strangling a cop with the very handcuffs he has been shackled in, but Javier Bardem plays hired gun Anton Chigurh with such a straight-faced cruelty, such a blasť yet secretively gleeful matter-of-fact workmanship, as if channeling the ghost of Robert Mitchum from whatever netherworld he may currently be residing in (all that's missing are love and hate tattooed on each set of knuckles), that one cannot help but get their own perverse sense of propitiation out of watching him go about his deliberate, disciplined dispatchment of death. Too substantially evil to be considered an anti-hero though - and Josh Brolin's somewhat inept opportunist already fits that bill anyway - Bardem's Chigurh is more aptly fitted with the title of death. Not the bringer of death, just simply death - with a capital D.
But enough about death (for now) for this is more than just a one trick pony show. After a spate of very un-Coen (and unsuccessful) misfires - the faux elegant Ladykillers, the visually stunning yet ultimately (and shamefully) forgettable The Man Who Wasn't There and the completely unnecessary Intolerable Cruelty - the brothers are back in form (and very top form at that) with their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, which plays out as both the brashest of westerns and the grandest of operas while at the very same moment acting as the most personal and individualistic thesis on man's struggle with not only his fellow man, but nature itself. Never bogged down with the pratfalls that have turned many a past Coen Bros. film into almost a parody of themselves, No Country for Old Men is the closest the Brothers Coen have ever come to creating what in essence is a near-masterpiece. An epic homage to the likes of Anthony Mann, John Huston, Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, all rolled into one grand opus of (and here's that word again) death, No Country for Old Men is one of several 2007 American movies - along with Anderson's There Will be Blood, Haynes' I'm Not There, Fincher's Zodiac, Burton's Sweeney Todd and even to a point, Tarantino's Death Proof half of Grindhouse - to be hailed as an auteurist onslaught, replete with the most sincere genuflection of filmic history. In short, a new American cinema.
New cinema as it is though, blood opera as it is, 21st century nihilistic as it is No Country for Old Men is still the most classic work in this new age of auteurs that 2007 has set forth with such a giddy thunderbolt of abruptness. No Country for Old Men is a film that, take away the more obvious violence, could have easily been made by someone such as Orson Welles or Anthony Mann back in the 1950's. Full of noirish charm and a deep sense of foreboding - and the tensest of motel room scenes since Marion Crane stepped into that shower lo those many years ago - the Coens wrap their film in the blackest of night while simultaneously opening it up - figuratively and literally - to the most effulgent of themes - fate. The fate of those Mexican drug runners lying dead and decomposing in the desert of Texas. The fate of Brolin's Llewelyn stealing the abandoned drug money and taking it on the run. The fate doled out by Chigurh and his coin-tossing consequence. The fate of Llewelyn's wife (played with the sturdiest stand-by-your-man aplomb by Kelly Macdonald) as she is confronted by Chigurh and his coin of death in what is the most emotionall mind-numbing scene in the entire film. The fate of Tommy Lee Jones' Sheriff Ed Bell as he trails both Llewelyn and Chigurh only to find his own fate elsewhere. Fate is what brings these characters together and fate is what kills some of them and leaves others to live another day.
Then again, as fateful as it may be, as black as it may be, No Country for Old Men is also a treatise on the corruptive deadly sin of greed right out of the ether of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The greed of those decaying Mexican drug runners. The greed of Llewelyn and his two million dollar desert theft. The greed of those who hired Chigurh to get their money back. The greed (or should we say lust?) of Chigurh as he doles out death throughout - his money is the souls he steals. Death. Fate. Greed. Again, this film, like those other works of the past year, is a veritable history book of cinema, and at the same time, an elegantly dooming dissertation on humanity. The best and most Judgment Day-ish film of the Coens 23 year career. No Country for Old Men is indeed, like their character of Chigurh, the Coens' at their very best, doing their very worst. [02/13/08]