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Photograph by Richard Foreman/Courtesy Miramax Films
Behind the Green Door: Tommy Lee Jones dispenses grizzled wisdom in 'No Country for Old Men.'

Sagebrush Logic

The Coens turn Cormac McCarthy's 'No Country for Old Men' into a highbrow grindhouser

By Richard von Busack

I WOULD HAVE thought that seven years of Texas metaphysics were enough for any country, whether it was filled with old men or not. But the new Joel and Ethan Coen film is already being heralded as a masterpiece and one of the best movies of the year. It certainly has punch, and if punch alone is what draws you to the cinema, it delivers.

In Texas, circa 1980, following a desert massacre, some killers and lawmen circle one another. All that was left was a bundle of money, a group of bullet-ridden Mexican corpses and a truck full of contraband powder. A cagey Vietnam vet, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), out hunting antelope, discovers the mess, takes the money and leaves the drugs.

Then Moss puts himself on the criminals' radar when he returns to the scene of the crime. He barely makes it out alive. Stalked by the worst of the drug runners, it would seem that his only hope of protection is rugged third-generation lawman Sheriff Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who is drawn into the case after a deputy is killed.

Trailing Moss is Death itself: Javier Bardem, playing Anton Chigurh, a real freakazoid with a black Prince Valiant haircut. He is a serial killer–cum–professional hit man. "I gave my word," he says, carrying out one murder just on the principle of the thing. That's Texas metaphysics: You're either for him or against him.

Ben Rutter in n+1 magazine suggests the killer's name comes from "chirurgia," "surgery" in Latin. The way Chigurh behaves, H.P. Lovecraft might be just as credible a source. Maybe he is one of the Old Gods. Chigurh is hired and paid, but he seems to have some fun playing with his victims. If Chigurh gave any sign of experiencing pleasure, you could say he was mixing business with it.

Chigurh is the proactive one in this movie, always going forward even as the other characters go into hiding, follow red herrings and turn up at the wrong places or too late. Chigurh displays superhuman abilities and a truly baroque murder weapon—he is a familiar figure from grindhouse cinema.

The human cattle who fall under the Texas chainsaw—or, in this case, under Chigurh's slaughterhouse killing machinery—are grindhouse fodder: they're peevish, old, obese or as trusting as village idiots. Chigurh is just culling the herd.

Sometimes Chigurh gets cosmic on his victims in order to show them the transitory quality of their lives. It's what Jigsaw does in the Saw movies—enlightenment through torture. If Chigurh uses psychological torture instead of a dungeon, he is still a torturer. The threat of death lies behind all torture. An interrogator who says something like "I'm pulling out your fingernails, but then I'll let you go" isn't going to succeed in his career.

Chigurh's gambit appears less superficially ghastly: he allows some of his victims to flip a coin for their lives. True, his coin-game with one aged gas-station owner in the middle of nowhere is brutally suspenseful, almost as full of impact as the film's finest moment: a brilliantly directed pit bull attack on a riverbank.

But the "flip a coin" bit works well in Batman comics, too, when Two-Face does it. If people appreciate No Country for Old Men on the same level that they do Batman, I won't be quite so disturbed. The Coens approach Cormac McCarthy's novel like kneeling penitents, crawling across Texas to follow his plot points. They are taken—who wouldn't be, when Tommy Lee Jones utters them?—by Bell's musings on the end of the old ways, and how much weaker we are than those who came before us.

Like Prussia, Texas was born encircled: First, it was the Comanches; today, it is the Meskins—"the coyotes won't eat a Mexican," Bell notes. Even now (back in 1980, that is), there are green-haired punk rockers. "Signs and wonders," Bell sighs, thinking of the roosterheads infesting Dallas. Up to bat next: the Beast of the Apocalypse.

Except for a few wry comments by Brolin's Moss, Woody Harrelson's loosely smiling, dandish rival hit man, Carson Wells, is the only example of something besides death's-head humor in No Country for Old Men. And Harrelson seems to have a handle on Chigurh: don't let him spook you. That's the side of Texas we love in the movies: the hero who keeps his courtliness and his sense of humor. In McCarthy's world, though, grace under pressure is mostly pressure.

The film's flatness will be mistaken for realism, but you can find better material about a lawman's calmness in fighting evil in Fargo and more-accurate material about the wily, opportunistic life of a criminal in Raising Arizona. The Coens go flat and dry to heighten the tense set pieces: the movie is all motel blocks, vast skies scribbled with thin white clouds, tires soughing on roads instead of music.

It all leads to nada, to a postmodern finale, an action-movie's version of coitus interruptus. Like American Gangster and, to a lesser extent, 3:10 to Yuma, No Country for Old Men is a genre picture that has lost its faith in catharsis. Morose vagueness will gets No Country for Old Men called a classic, instead of what it is: an often effective but pompous grindhouser. Its pretensions are so big, you couldn't fit them in Texas.

Movie Times NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (R; 122 min.), directed and written by Ethan and Joel Coen, photographed by Roger Deakins and starring Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem, opens Nov. 16 valleywide.

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