One take on Cormac McCarthy’s 2003 novel No Country for Old Men is that it’s more movie than book. In a merciless review of the book a few years ago, Joyce Carol Oates snipped that it “reads like a prose film by Quentin Tarantino.” While it’s fun (and maybe frightening) to imagine everyone’s favorite ADHD auteur adapting McCarthy’s eulogy to the morally decaying American West, I think we should all be a little thankful that Joel and Ethan Coen had that honor instead.
The St. Louis Park brothers’ adaptation of No Country for Old Men opened yesterday at the Uptown Theater, and it is a revelation. Like all of the Coens’ films, No Country is a crime story told with a good dose of humor and (this time) a great deal of blood. Like the best of their movies, it’s also a reminder that the problem with genre films is not that they’ve been done too much, but that they’re often done with so little imagination. The Coens’ oeuvre is a master class on how to turn a genre picture inside out, at once subverting viewers’ expectations and paying wry homage to the once-classic, now creaky, conventions of film noirs, gangster movies, psychological dramas, even slapstick comedies.
Set in 1980 in the small towns that border Texas and Mexico, No Country triangulates between a hunter (Josh Brolin) who takes off with $2 million in cash he discovers at the scene of a drug-run-gone-wrong, the mysterious assassin (Javier Bardem) who is looking for him and the money, and the longtime law man (Tommy Lee Jones) who is trying to get to Brolin before Bardem does. In its economy of storytelling and its tone, the film most resembles the Coens’ stripped-down 1984 debut, Blood Simple, another Texas-set murder story that has a virtuoso scene in which predator and prey face-off in adjoining rooms. (No Country gets extra credit for arming Bardem with a cattle gun that handily blows through door locks.)
The filmmakers’ dirt-dry humor finds a nice partner in McCarthy’s famously terse writing. But this time the simple-man shorthand seems more organic, less a device to produce laughs (which it, thankfully, still does) and more a point-of- entry to the characters. There’s a bit of a somber edge to the film and definitely to Jones’ character, a third-generation sheriff who is undergoing a spiritual crisis of sorts as he tries to reconcile the carnage brought by the nascent border drug trade with the mythic West he loves. As the title not so subtly suggests, his crisis is our crisis, a point that is teased out late in the movie as the sheriff’s uncle tells him, “This country is hard on people,” and warns that it’s only vanity to think that one can stop the rot that’s started.
Jones slips comfortably into a role that’s become almost standard-issue for him, while Bardem, an unconventional choice for the part of a psychopathic killer who is so evil he seems to be operating in a sort of parallel universe, pulls off the miracle of being truly, believably menacing for no apparent (worldly) reason. Brolin is another surprise as a Vietnam vet who recognizes how life-changing the money could be and keeps paying for that greed over and over again. He never overplays his character, never strains to make him more sympathetic, just lets his natural decency come through. Kelly Macdonald plays his wife, Carla Jean, a role that doesn’t have much meat and to which she doesn’t really bring much either.
The Coens practically have their own repertory company by now. While the acting branch (John Turturro, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Frances McDormand) sat out this film, the behind-the-scenes talents are all there: director of photography Roger Deakins, composer Carter Burwell, costume designer Mary Zophres, even hair guy Paul LeBlanc, who made characters out of the 1940s ’dos of The Man Who Wasn’t There and does the same with Bardem’s pageboy-from-hell.
I haven’t read McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, so I can’t say whether the Coens were in the enviable position of taking a mediocre book and elevating it to art (always a better proposition than adapting the next great American novel). But I do know that their macabre chase story is both artful and entertaining in a way that’s hard to argue.