No Country for Old Men
"A man would have to put his soul at hazard."
Every now and again, a film comes along that approaches perfection--this is such a movie. The Coens' film is funny, bleak, ruthless, and despairing. It leaves little hope for mankind, except that few people like Javier Bardem's killer exist. In telling the story of a simple man (Josh Brolin) drawn into the sights of a nightmarish, spectral evil (Bardem), and the sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) who hopes to intervene in the ensuing hopeless mess, the Coens have created a masterful character study. Certainly, the film can be called a thriller, a suspense or crime film, and it contains those elements, but to label it as such is to discount it prematurely and fail to notice its depth. The cinematography is superb, creating a parched, earth-toned landscape whose barrenness is palpable. And the editing and direction by the Coens is of the highest caliber, to be sure.
But this is a film driven by its pitch-perfect dialogue (a fact to which anyone familiar with rural Texas can attest) and its uniformly marvelous performances. Bardem has been much praised as the killer, and rightly so--he creates a truly memorable villain. But the character's nuance too often goes unnoticed. Bardem does not kill for the fun of it, nor simply to clear away underbrush in his pursuit (though at times this is at least a partial goal). As Woody Harrelson's bounty hunter notes, he is a man of principles. He is perhaps not so much evil personified as he is the unforgiving hand of fate--at least this is his view. This is established early on in the masterful scene between Bardem and the elderly gas station owner ("Call it."). He kills because his victims have made decisions bringing them into his path. This is, of course, a neatly constructed worldview, suitable to Bardem's ends. He has no qualms with murdering anyone, anywhere, but he absolves himself of guilt (in his own mind) by telling himself that he serves only as the vehicle for fate's (not his own) judgment. He is merely the invisible hand, and his commodification of life has quieted whatever conscience he might once have had.
Kelly MacDonald, as Brolin's sweet, innocent wife, notes this in the penultimate scene--when Bardem gives her a chance to "call it," she refuses, telling him the coin has no say in what happens, it is his choice (interestingly, Bardem is visibly angered by this suggestion of his own culpability). MacDonald is superb, bringing a tenderness and human touch (along with Tess Harper as Jones' wife) to a stark film (a touch this year's other "masterpiece," There Will Be Blood, lacked). And Brolin continues to show his acting chops as the simpleminded welder who stumbles across the remains of a broken drug deal and sees an opportunity to better his life, ignorant of the consequences.
But at the end of the day the film belongs to Jones, who gives its best performance, giving breath to a fully formed human being in a role that could easily have descended into caricature. Like the other (non-Bardem) characters, Jones operates according to more traditional moral norms, but he sees the world headed in a decidedly amoral direction. While Brolin, Harrelson, and MacDonald all believe they can solve their problems by giving Bardem the money, their sensibilities are useless when faced with his depravity. This is so even though many of the other characters are fatalists (Brolin says that "things happen," and Jones' former coworker tells him late in the film that he "can't stop what's coming")--they still attempt to operate according to a logical, ethical scheme that Bardem has rejected. Jones sees this. He calls the state of affairs "all out war" and expresses a hopelessness resonant today. It is not that he is afraid--in the opening monologue he acknowledges that to be a lawman is to risk life and limb. But he cannot face what he does not understand, lest he "put his soul at hazard." It is not Bardem's gun Jones fears, but his spiritual and emotional necrosis.
And so Jones retires, leading to the film's much-discussed final scene. Jones has dreamt that his father (long dead) and he were riding at night; it was cold, and his father rode up ahead, carrying fire in a horn. And Jones knows that his father will be there waiting for him when he arrives. Jones sees that his time is drawing short--the world is moving into a new era in which men like him are outmoded. But perhaps men like his father, carrying a light, will be waiting. Perhaps all hope is not lost. While some have complained about this ending, their real complaint is that the film does not follow Old Hollywood's traditional three-act structure, where everything is neatly wrapped up by the end credits and nothing extraneous to "the plot" occurs. But I would ask those people how the film should have ended instead. Clearly, they either want Bardem apprehended or killed, or Jones killed--this would be the hoary old resolution for which they yearn. But would it fit what went before? Or would it, like so many cliched, shoehorned endings, feel contrived? It is quite right that Bardem should leave us just as he came, an enigma--evil of his magnitude cannot (and probably should not) be understood, and any explanation that could have been offered would have devolved into worn out movie-of-the-week material. I would also remind these dissatisfied viewers that Bardem is not the film's central character, Jones is. People get (understandably) caught up in the chase between Bardem and Brolin, but that is essentially a MacGuffin. The film is about how Jones (representing the old guard) confronts a new and incomprehensible form of evil, and how it beats him down. (In fact, it is Jones with whom we spend most of our time for the film's final third.) Viewed in this light, it makes much sense that the film would close with Jones moving forward, rather than with Bardem's next nefarious misadventure. Finally, I would point them to There Will Be Blood, the year's other bleak epic, which does contain nice, neat resolution at its end, in a scene so grossly out of step with the tone of the film's preceding 140 minutes that it is irreparably jarring. The Coens demonstrate that sometimes remaining true to one's trajectory is better than packaging things with a shiny bow.