No Country for Old Men

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Richard Foreman/Miramax Films
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen/United States 2007

The Coen Brothers function only in two genres: the noir and the screwball. This pattern emerged more than a decade ago with their first two films, Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, and little has changed since. Critics at Cannes must have suffered a collective attack of amnesia when they hailed the Coens’ latest, an eponymous adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, as a return to form. Not too long before the brothers made such commercial throwaways as Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, they actually had another a noir merely six years ago called The Man Who Wasn’t There. If there’s anything “new” about the Coens’ allegedly “new” film, it’s the fact that they have Javier Bardem in a role that ordinarily would have gone straight to John Turturro. Rounding out the cast are Barbara Streisand’s son in law and the newly-minted Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s former college roommate.

Although this adaptation is quite faithful to McCarthy’s source material, it’s still unmistakably Coen Brothers: Smalltime crook: check. Unsophisticated cops: check. Creepy mental case: check. It’s perhaps more Coens than is necessary at the expense of the Pulitzer-winning novelist’s touch. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) goes hunting and accidentally stumbles onto the scene of a drug deal gone bad. He uncovers a truckload of dope and a suitcase full of dough then absconds with the money. On his trail are a ferocious cartel and a recently escaped serial killer (Bardem) armed with a cattle gun and Buster Brown bobbed hair.

The Coens get a lot of mileage out of this cat-and-mouse chase, and the set pieces are expertly executed. But they have missed the entire point of McCarthy’s novel, which the title plainly gives away. The world-weary, near-retirement Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) who narrates the book unfortunately becomes a subplot in the Coens’ version. One can venture to say that, albeit entertaining, No Country for Old Men is an even more misguided attempt than Billy Bob Thornton’s stab at McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses.

Although lately Jones seems to be typecast in this kind of role (i.e. In the Valley of Elah), his turn adds some much needed heart and soul to No Country for Old Men. Given that Jones also did such a fine job directing the McCarthyesque Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, he should have taken this film over from the Coens.

© 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

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