Bloody simple

Fans of Joel and Ethan Coen’s movies, who, like me, discovered them in the 1980s, have long been wishing the brothers would get back to the dark stuff. Okay, we loved Raising Arizona (1987), their first comedy, and The Big Lebowski and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? later came close to the inspired madness of that film, but the recent Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers were, by their standards, very minor works. It was the Coens’ earlier, darker movies (Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink) that made them look like the most exciting of the 1980s/1990s generation of American filmmakers — among the few worthy successors to the ‘American new wave” spearheaded by Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman.

Sorry for that whiz-through of a filmography above — and I didn’t even mention Fargo and The Hudsucker Proxy. But the Coen brothers inspire a cinephilia that few of their contemporaries do, and any fan of their movies is likely to have done their best to see them all; even the least interesting of their films still has a whiff of the inimitable Flavour of Coen.

It is set in a world of blinding sunlight and heat, but No Country for Old Men returns the Coens to the darkness, and is all the stronger for it — as the slew of Oscars it won last weekend shows. One can’t always trust the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to do the right thing, but this year they haven’t performed too badly. Personally, much as I like the Coens and No Country for Old Men, I would have given this year’s Oscar for best picture to Atonement. Given the ‘noms”, as Variety calls them, and given that we in South Africa have yet to see the indie outsider Juno, in my view Atonement pips No Country for Old Men to the post in terms of complexity, depth and richness of story (not to mention decent female roles).

Which is not to mark down No Country for Old Men for its relatively minimal style. That look is a key part of its content, and helps effect the tone of gruff understatement so necessary to a western of this kind. It’s like Tommy Lee Jones’s face, with its appearance of striated, wind-eroded rock, which so appropriately echoes his dry, laconic utterances. This is a modern-day western, set in the arid plains of the American south-west. It looks a lot like our Karoo, which would make the perfect setting for a western, modern or otherwise, American or South African. The Meseta Central, the plain in Spain (where it seldom rains), stood in for Texas in the spaghetti westerns of the late 1960s, and the Karoo would do just as well, or even better. But that’s beside the immediate point.

Those bleached, bleakly beautiful landscapes are at the heart of No Country for Old Men, which is based on Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel. McCarthy has emerged as the hard-bitten poet of the latter-day frontier, with its particular kind of masculinity — a masculinity of violence, desperation, the struggle to survive. As the title of his Border Trilogy, which includes The Crossing, indicates, McCarthy’s typical locale is the borderland, with one foot in the US and the other in Mexico; the line between them is constantly being crossed and recrossed.

Here, the crossing is, as so often in westerns, an attempt at escape — but, for the hunted Llewelyn (Josh Brolin), the notion of a getaway across the borderline is perhaps no more than a last-ditch residual attempt at the utopia offered the western outlaw. Early in the movie, Llewelyn stumbles across the scene of a drug deal gone wrong and finds a bag of cash that, naturally, he appropriates. But he also makes a small gesture of compassion, which he knows could be disastrous, as three brilliant lines of dialogue show:

‘If I don’t come back, tell Mother I love her,” he says to his wife.

She replies, ‘Your mother’s dead, Llewelyn.”

‘In that case, I’ll tell her myself.”

His minimally compassionate gesture tags him for relentless pursuit by what is perhaps the most terrifying bad guy in the movies this year, the assassin with a black-comedy haircut played by Javier Bardem.

Like Llewelyn, the Bardem character seems to come out of nowhere. They have no context other than the empty, blasted plains; they are without personal histories. Like the Men with No Name in many a western, they are defined almost purely as functions in a starkly simple relation of greeds and antagonisms, caught in a delicate but scary dance of pursuit and death.

Jones is the local sheriff who tracks both of them; it feels like he’s been preparing for this role in many another movie (The Fugitive, Double Jeopardy, The Hunted), and this is the apotheosis of all those chase figures. He gets the voice-over at the start, hence more inner life than the others, and he gets the final word — except it’s not very final at all. The Coens may be making a western, but they are also grimly subverting the codes of the genre, and hence our expectations.

No Country for Old Men is riveting cinema, a teeth-grittingly tense suspense drama and a chase movie as much as a western. If its characters lack the appearance of depth or complexity, that is because they are archetypes in a mythology both enduring and open to the kind of revision the Coen brothers apply here. It’s a myth that speaks of almost prehistoric human actions, and in their darkest, bloodiest manifestations.

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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