Grave new world

Coens return to form with new film

“I think when you quit hearing sir and ma’am, the rest is sure to follow.”

These are the words of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) lamenting the decline of traditional American morals in the brilliant new film No Country for Old Men.

Written and directed by the Coen brothers after Cormac McCarthy’s eponymous novel, the film is their best since the 1996 classic Fargo, a long-awaited return to form after the underwhelming Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers.

It features Oscar-worthy performances from Jones, the emerging Josh Brolin as Vietnam War veteran Llewellyn Moss, and most of all Javier Bardem as ruthless assassin Anton Chigurh. Bardem’s haunting portrayal of the sociopathic Chigurh will likely be remembered as one of the greatest on-screen villains in recent years.

Set against the barren landscape of rural Texas, the film opens with a monologue by Jones about a young man he sent to the electric chair: a cold, unfeeling boy who murdered his 14-year-old girlfriend and promised to kill again if released. The sheriff, in his slow, Southern drawl, relates the story to his own morals and those of his father and grandfather—how a new frontier of evil and injustice has replaced their old world.

Brolin’s Llewellyn Moss is a simple cowboy who lives modestly with his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald). He’s a retired welder who spends his idle time hunting antelope in the desert, where he first happens upon a scene that will force him into a violent, high-stakes game of cat and mouse with a notorious killer.

Bardem’s inescapably memorable Chigurh enters the film shortly thereafter. His presence is outstanding throughout the film. Woody Harrelson, playing bounty hunter Carson Wells, compares him to the bubonic plague. The analogy isn’t far off. He’s a virus that kills nearly everyone he encounters without prejudice, as casually as one flips a coin—which he does, literally. “Call it,” he says to his victims and asks them to choose, “heads or tails”—a chance he reserves for the innocent.

Chigurh is the very incarnation of amorality, no more human than the quarters he keeps in his pocket. Bardem plays him masterfully, a performance that sets him apart.

The film is clearly a statement about the decline of society from a state with an intact moral code. The teenager in the electric chair, the hitman Chigurh and the bounty hunter Wells are the men of the new country—a violent, individualist and, of course, capitalist America. There is no empathy or respect in this frightening new world, set in 1980.

The film presents a world that is thoroughly determinist, a country inevitably destined to continue its natural descent into darkness. “You can’t stop what’s coming,” as a prophetic old man wisely says to Sheriff Bell.

The Coens make the viewer question the world, and its powerful message and performances could even make you cry. One of the best films of the year and one of the best I’ve ever seen.

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