Dusk to Dusk
Coens return in stark hail of creatively splattered blood
Release Date: Nov. 21
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Writers: Joel and Ethan Coen, Cormac McCarthy
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald
Studio/Run Time: Miramax/122 mins.
Western novelist Cormac McCarthy’s “obsolete vernacular”—as Royal Tenenbaums McCarthy parody Eli Cash calls it—is the music that sings through No Country For Old Men, the Coen brothers’ stunning new adaptation of the Pulitzer winner’s 2005 book. With a higher and far grizzlier body count than the last three Coens’ pictures combined, McCarthy’s southwest is the perfect landscape for the now ?ftysomething Minnesota ?lmmakers to rediscover their bloody, moody roots. It’s been a long time since Joel and Ethan Coen took themselves this seriously. Perhaps since 1991’s Barton Fink. The result is suspenseful and uncompromising.
In a ?awless merging of voices, the Coens subsume themselves in McCarthy’s own intense stylization instead of relying on the screwball-in?uenced rhythms that hit the tone for three of their last four ?lms. Set in rural Texas in 1980, as a sociopathic killer (Javier Bardem’s splendidly coiffed Anton Chigurh) chases a stoic everyman (Josh Brolin) and a bundle of misplaced drug money across the state, the novel and ?lm are both held together by characters the Coens have always been transcendent with: hotel clerks, salesmen, and other small-timers.
In a sporting-goods store, Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss tries to buy aluminum tent poles to build a contraption to poke around in the air ducts of a motel. “He tried to explain that he didnt care what kind of tent it was, just needed the poles,” McCarthy wrote, apostrophe free. “The clerk studied him. Whatever kind of tent it is, he said, we’d still have to special order poles for it. You need to get the manufacturer and the model number.” The Coens, along with character-actor Matthew Posey, play it for maximum dryness. In the arid climate, maybe that’s all they can do.
Like the North Country drawl that ran through Fargo, the particular phrasings of the region make the dialogue ring. “I’m talkin' about closin'. That's what I'm talkin' about," a gas station attendant says to Bardem’s meticulous Anton. “You can’t make up such a thing as that,” Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff Ed Tom Bell declares, recalling a newspaper account of a bizarre crime. “I dare you to even try.” The dialect is not without its comedy, of course, but its purpose runs much greater here than usual. Seemingly regional punchlines at ?rst glance, the bit parts often end up in the wake of Anton’s homicidal path, frequently let off the hook by the Coens’ camera (and McCarthy’s eye) only to be reintroduced as mangled corpses when the deputies arrive later to clean up the mess.
It’s not that McCarthy’s violence—carried out almost to the letter in the film—automatically equates with seriousness on the ?lmmakers’ part. But it sure doesn’t hurt. Rather, it’s just one element of what is ultimately a pulp novel, but a pulp of such ?ne, articulated matter that the details reveal themselves in endless textures: the light over a motel at magic hour, the seemingly internal glow of a highway sign. And, as befits pulp, certain elements seem hopelessly archetypal, such as Tommy Lee Jones’ in?nitely gaunt good-guy sheriff. If predictable, Jones is perfectly cast, his reasonable self-doubt a welcome anchor to the neatly arranged hair and self-performed surgical maneuvers of Chigurh, the fast-talking dialogue of Woody Harrelson’s late-appearing bounty hunter Carson Wells, and the strong ‘n’ silent tribulations of Moss.
The Coens’ distinct ?ngerprints appear, too, of course. “The office was on the seventeenth ?oor with a view over the skyline of Houston and the open lowlands to the ship channel and the bayou beyond,” is how McCarthy describes Wells’ arrival at his employer’s office. “Colonies of silver tanks. Gas ?ares, pale in the day.” The Coens nail it, if not literally, and add the comically timed dings of an elevator bell. Later, another character—passed out in a public park after a series of bloody confrontations—is woken by a norteño band, serenading him with a woozy Mexican love song before ?eeing at the sight of his reddened clothing. This is one of the Coens’ few additions to the book.
Though the Coens’ usual on-screen suspects are absent (like veteran bit-man Jon Polito and Steve Buscemi, who especially would’ve been a natural instant-death candidate in No Country), the brothers’ behind-the-scenes collaborators are intact, including cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Carter Burwell. A masterful entry into the Coens’ canon, No Country For Old Men leaves featherweight Preston Sturges tributes like 2003’s Intolerable Cruelty and 2004’s The Ladykillers as distant memories. After a three-year layoff, among the longest in their career, the Coens have found their way home in this, their utterly memorabl new ?lm, far from the plains of Minnesota, even farther from their own tinseltown fantasies, and somewhere deep in Cormac McCarthy’s friscalating dusklight.