Coen Bros. 2007
Nancy Browner & Deborah Davies
Set in 1980, the film opens on a sprawling and primitive West Texas landscape. From his perch high up in the rocks, welder, hunter and Vietnam veteran, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), sets his sights on the antelopes grazing below. When he goes down to track the wounded animal, he stumbles on a scene of carnage and mayhem: abandoned pick-up trucks, a dead pit bull and several dead Mexicans; a drug deal gone horribly wrong. Moss knows that where there is heroin, there is money – $2,000,000 to be exact – which he finds. The lucky/unlucky soft-spoken Texas cowpoke/hunter stumbles across a veritable fortune in drug money only to be relentlessly pursued by a psychopathic killer.
What has been described as horror/comedy/chase, this film has all the hallmarks of the Coen brothers at their best. In the traditions of Blood Simple (1984) and Fargo (1996), this is a story of violence, humour, bungled crimes and simple people getting involved beyond their capacity.
Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is a small-town country sheriff, following in the footsteps of his deceased sheriff father. He is a product of earlier and simpler times and seems jaded, wistful and bewildered by what he discovers. When his deputy remarks on the bodies in the desert: ‘It’s a mess, ain’t it Sheriff’ he replies: ‘If it ain’t, it’ll do ‘til the mess gets here’.
Meanwhile, psychopathic killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) wants his money and nothing or no one can stop him. Within the first five minutes of the film, he has violently strangled a policeman, and shot an innocent driver. He remains both a dominant and elusive character throughout the film and his connection to the money, drugs and murders in the desert is never made clear. He cuts an alien and chilling figure – dressed in black and sporting a strange and decidedly creepy page-boy hair cut – in a landscape of cowboy boots and Stetsons. The adage of the old Wild West was that life is cheap; this is certainly borne out in the brutality and seeming senselessness of Chigurh’s bloody rampage. Sheriff Bell is the antithesis of Chigurh. He doesn’t understand all of the death and destruction laid at his feet. He longs for a time when murders were easy to track and solve; a time when crime made sense.
The cinematography, by Roger Deakins (a staple of the Coens’ films), is sumptuous and acts as a backdrop to the relentless tension of the film, evoking images reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s paintings of lonely gas stations and hotel rooms, and the panoramic landscapes of Ansel Adams’ America. That there is no soundtrack to this film adds to its tension.
Performances by Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin are outstanding. Jones and Brolin embody the quintessential Texan, at either end of the spectrum (both actors are originally from Texas and identified very strongly with their characters). The Spanish actor Javier Bardem, (a relative unknown in the US) plays the ultimate outsider, and deservedly won Best Supporting Actor at the 2008 Academy Awards. Supporting roles by Woody Harrelson (as Carson Wells, the spookily intelligent Private Detective) and Kelly Macdonald (as Moss’s feisty wife, Carla Jean), both deserve mention. Adapted by the Coens from the novel by Cormac McCarthy, this was a book deemed impossible to rework for the screen. Notwithstanding, they have done a sterling job.
This is a very violent film but it is not a film about violence or the nature of evil, nor is it a film about the inner workings of the psychopathic mind. Most striking to me – and also a Coen brothers’ trademark – was the banality, randomness and ‘ordinariness’ of violence. Innocent people simply in the wrong place at the wrong time; hapless bystanders caught up in something they never could, nor would, understand. It is a very one-to-one violence where the victim and killer are in relationship, albeit very briefly. This is very chilling to watch.
Whilst totally engaged throughout, I was surprisingly undisturbed by this film. Despite the gorgeous lighting and scenery, powerful performances by a very tight cast and a great script peppered with humble, down-home humour, I was left unmoved and a little disappointed. Not by the ambiguous ending, but by the stark lack of humanity. Perhaps this is the point.
If this is anyone’s story, it is the Sheriff’s. A man confused, distressed and saddened by the dichotomy between the old and simpler ways of the West and the brutality of modern life. His is the only human face in a landscape of greed, violence and purposelessness. Ultimately, he is crushed by it, as is evidenced by the two dreams he tells his wife in the closing moments of the film.
In the end, I was left feeling this is a powerful film that should have been ripe with poignancy; a film that thinks it is deeper than it actually is. I would highly recommend it, but like many Coen brothers’ films, I wouldn’t look too hard for meaning. Just enjoy the ride.
…..a character study……..
The Coen brothers have taken the classic cowboy archetype – a loner with a wrong to right – and spun it on its head. We do not know anything about Chigurh’s past. His actions tell us he is a psychopathic mercenary with paranoid delusions. He represents an anathema to those of us who seek to make meaning or find connections with the past; and yet he remains an object (a clever trick of projective identification) onto which we can project and fantasise about. His violent actions drive the plot.
Psychopaths are eternally fascinating mostly because they operate in a world with no rules and no fear of consequences. They do exactly what they want and have no compunction about manipulating and forcing others to achieve their end. This need to be in control, to have power, is vital to their existence. People become things or, in the case of Chigurh when he kills, lowly animals, like cows going to slaughter. Chigurh plays a game with himself and his victims and uses the toss of a coin (signifying fate) to disown and defend against taking responsibility for the murderous acts he commits. He argues that he does not decide who lives or dies but that fate or God determines it when the coin is tossed. “I got here the same way the coin did”, he tells Llewellyn’s wife when she refuses to choose heads or tails to determine whether she lives or dies. Chigurh’s omnipotence demands “respect” from whoever he meets. A harrowing exchange between him and the owner of a gas station allows the audience to witness the apparent random sensitivity of Chigurh’s narcissistic rage. He is no-one’s “friendo”. He is above that. And my fantasy might have me believe that as God’s messenger, he experiences himself as safe and able to live out a grandiose defense.