It’s sometimes the way that a filmmaker's best or most characteristic work is overlooked by the Academy Awards, and everyone knows it. So when the same director comes up again with something a little weirder or less likely, the Academy gives them the gong out of sheer embarrassment. Something like this has happened to the Coen brothers’ ‘No Country For Old Men’.
It is an exceptional film, to be sure, but its qualities are a little more remote from easy apprehension than, say, Fargo’s were. It is the sort of film that needs to season in the memory before coming properly into focus. I suspect it has more to say on repeat viewings.
There are several memorable scenes that will be discussed on the way home by those who have seen the film, including the opportunity the existentialist murderer Anton Chigurh gives an uncomprehending gas-station owner to save his own life with a coin toss. One of the reasons it is terrifying is that this dim character barely registers what is actually going on. It’s enough that we the audience know. “Call it” says Chigurh. “I need to know what I stand to win”, says the gas-station owner. Chigurh replies, “Everything”.
But there are other less celebrated scenes that I’m sure will reward repeated and careful viewing. One of these for me is the confrontation between Chigurh and the bounty hunter (played by Woody Harrelson) stalking him. It takes place calmly, while sitting in a motel room, and the discussion remains civil even though these men have history and one of them is holding a large weapon at the others’ chest. Harrelson is extraordinary, his face a concerto of emotions as he visibly sweats over the inevitable outcome, while playing out the possible scenarios in his head of how this (how he) will end. We later learn that Harrelson, who we know is a Vietnam veteran, is actually a former Colonel. Suddenly the scene retrospectively seems charged with suggestive possibilities of how these men might have met before, under what circumstances. It is just one of the many moments that add up to a very rich experience in the cinema.
Several parallels with the Coen‘s earlier masterpiece ‘Fargo’ suggest themselves. For much of the film’s length, it looks like we are going to get a confrontation between Chigurh and the sadly bewildered good cop Tommy Lee Jones. This possibility almost, but does not, occur, in a particularly suggestive way. Chigurh is the latest in a long line of Coen characters who are utterly, almost transcendentally, evil. They seem to be mainlining some cosmic current of supernatural malice. Dialogue can even suggest such inspiration. At the conclusion of ‘Fargo’, when the pregnant policewoman faces down the hitman and he flees, it is like matter meeting anti-matter.
I suspect the Coen’s are aware of how outlandish Chigurh is, a kind of absurd, murderous clown, with his hairdo and his low sing-song voice. The risk was great that audiences would simply laugh at him, and they might have if not for the strange relentlessness Javier Bardem gives him. It helps that his motives are inscrutable. Just when we get used to his willingness to murder on a whim, he chooses not to act on the impulse and we are never sure exactly why. Several times he almost shrinks from those who resist him, as when he encounters a beehived receptionist at a trailer park who won’t co-operate and he withdraws without use of violence. I suspect there is a pattern with such behaviour, but it might take another viewing to crack it.
One of the things that every person I’ve spoken to mentions (and this is a movie that need to be talked about afterwards), is the strange, suggestive ending.
There are films that end prematurely out of an inability to resolve whatever issues the film itself raises in the lives of the characters. This isn’t one of those. It has a sudden, abrupt ending, incorporating a truly fearless plot ellipsis, which only seems appropriate after contemplation. It’s perfect in its own way, only seeming abrupt because we’ve been so thoroughly convinced of the independent existence of the characters over the last two hours, like they could go on living after the lights have gone out.