The methodical, handsomely made, and yet ultimately disappointing new Coen brothers movie, No Country for Old Men, begins and ends with sound: first, a lonely breeze creeping across a beautifully threatening Texas countryside; and last, a ticking clock, counting the time left, at least figuratively, for the old man who just finished describing the portentous dream he had about his dead father.
The Coens, Joel and Ethan, who are around 50 now, have assumed a privileged mantle in American cinema: Every film is concelebrated as a new refinement, another piece -- another masterpiece -- in the gospel of the artists' oeuvre. In No Country for Old Men, the brothers display a kind of wisdom and maturity we haven't seen in their earlier work. I mean that literally, but also as the sort of cliché you say about artists at midlife.
Unfortunately, the Coens only happen upon this wisdom, not unlike the way their protagonist, Llewelyn Moss, happens upon a suitcase with $2 million in drug money. They haven't earned it, and as much as we like them and believe them to be sincere, we know they have to give it back to someone.
In this case, it's Cormac McCarthy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist (in 2007 for The Road) whose 2005 novel the Coens adapt. Reaction to McCarthy's book was flatteringly mixed: Some saw it as another penetrating descent into his disquieting world view; others found it to be mere pulp fiction, all dressed up. But everyone agreed that McCarthy had the cinema in mind when he wrote his potboiler plot.
I fell for the Coens in 1984, with their first and -- I could argue, if I had to -- best film, Blood Simple, which No Country for Old Men echoes in superficial ways. The Texas landscape and milieu are the same in both films. So, too, are the language and the venality. Both films are sanguinary and ominous, and the new film's opening montage borrows images from the older one. The brothers' homage to their youth is both comfortable and self-conscious.
Dignity isn't a Coen instinct when it comes to sketching provincials. But in this new version of their Texas tales (can a trilogy be far behind?), the brothers had McCarthy's blueprint, and it makes a difference. The Coens are educated liberals from Minneapolis, and the Texans in Blood Simple were to them like a mouse is to a cat. The movie toyed with them, tore them apart slowly, insulted their intelligence. The voice of reason was a black guy from Detroit who got out before the blood and shit hit the windshield.
In No Country, the formula changes. Husbands and wives love each other. One man, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (a beleaguered Tommy Lee Jones), is unqualifiedly good. Even Llewelyn (Josh Brolin, an undervalued actor, fine as always), who finds the money in a field littered with mostly dead bodies, isn't a bad fellow, and certainly isn't a stupid one (unlike the illicit lovers in Blood Simple). He's just dangerously human, and he thinks he can get away with keeping the money for himself and his wife. In fact, he makes his first mistake when, stricken with guilt, he returns to give water to the dying sole survivor of the slaughter. To paraphrase: This guy was born to be killed.
His antagonist is equal parts psychopath and metaphor: Anton Chigurh, played by the Spanish actor Javier Bardem, whose monstrous nose, watery eyes and hulking body could vivify this part without Bardem speaking a word. Anton stalks Llewelyn, and soon he's stalked himself by a detective -- Woody Harrelson, in a stroke of incredibly cheap casting -- who works for the big-city corporate slicks to whom the money traces back.
In Ed Tom, McCarthy creates an old man of justice, circa 1980 (the story's setting), who can't fathom the emerging new world of drug crime and kids with purple hair. "When you stop hearing 'sir' and 'ma'am,'" he observes, "the rest just follows." He's as right as he is wrong, but that's not the point: The point is that he exists, along with the rest of them, to succumb to the encroaching decay. (McCarthy, raised Catholic in Tennessee, is a moralist and an allegorist.)
This is pure McCarthy, but it's adulterated Coen, for the brothers have always been half in and half out of their game of moral finger-wagging. No Country for Old Men is virtually humorless, and when it isn't, the humor feels perfunctory, something for the fans and the critics. I laughed only once: at a bizarre closeup of a plastic snack-food wrapper unfurling after Anton crumples it up and sets it down on a convenience-store countertop. No Country desperately needs more recondite moments like that.
The movie looks gorgeous, and the Coens give you plenty of time to appreciate every image. No Country is almost half an hour longer than Blood Simple, but it feels half as sincere. Their characters are stoic archetypes, except for Anton, who's merely a cipher (if that). I'm willing to call this a transitional work for now, and I'll look forward to the day when the guys can convince us that they mean a fraction of what they say here.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the nationality of Javier Bardem.
- It's a gas: Javier Bardem prepares to do bodily harm.