No Country for Old Men (15)

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This strange, disquieting new movie by the Coen Brothers is being hailed as a return to form, and let's face it, anything that makes a break from Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers has to be considered good news. The Coens really are one (or perhaps two) of the great enigmas of American cinema. Few modern film-makers can rival their combination of technical virtuosity and playful eccentricity, and no one could argue that their oddball genre-bending hasn't brightened the movie landscape since their emergence in the mid-Eighties. It's just that – how to put this? – I very rarely enjoy it. Aside from Fargo and certain sequences in The Big Lebowski, their work has seemed cold, affectless, smug and a struggle to sit through. Heresy, I suppose.

So, about that return to form... No Country for Old Men is adapted from a recent novel by Cormac McCarthy, who took the title from a Yeats poem, "Sailing to Byzantium". It's a story of murder and mayhem on the lonesome roads of Texas that raises the dread of the Coens' very first movie, Blood Simple (1984). Brace yourself, because some very unpleasant sights are guaranteed. It begins when a hunter named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is stalking across Texan scrubland and stumbles upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone violently wrong. A trail of blood leads him to a corpse and a case packed with two million dollars. What kind of a man is Moss? Well, he ignores the plea for water from a dying man and, in traditional noir style, he takes the money and scarpers. Later, however, he regrets his indifference to that man, returns to the scene of the crime – and promptly brings down a whole world of pain on himself.

Moss finds himself being pursued, first by a truck, then a ravening hound, then – much more alarmingly – by a pale-faced, dead-eyed fellow named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a killer who approaches his work with such cool, impersonal tenacity he might almost be the Angel of Death himself. And in laggardly pursuit of both of them is a grizzled old lawman, Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), whose weary voiceover keeps us in fitful contact with the film's principal themes of changing times, the persistence of evil, the limitations of humankind. An elegiac bassnote sounds mournfully beneath this Texan noir, which is very much in keeping with McCarthy's vision. The story is set in 1980, though when the sheriff and his deputy first arrive at the murder scene they're mounted on horses, and we could almost be in 1930. Then the drugs and the cars and the guns bring us bang up-to-date.

For what is ostensibly a thriller, one detects very little urgency in its rhythm. Like the Texan folk it's set among, the movie takes its own, sweet time. This has its benefits, as is apparent in the deadpan exchanges between characters. Before Moss slopes off towards what might be grave danger, he tells his wife (Kelly Macdonald), "If I don't come back, tell my mother I love her." "Llewelyn, your mother's dead." "Then I'll tell her myself." That's taken straight from McCarthy's novel, yet it also sounds like something the Coens might have written themselves. When the killer stops at a convenience store, it's only after some minutes of his humourless teasing that we realise the ancient clerk behind the counter is in mortal jeopardy.

But this undramatic pacing only works for so long; after a while, you start to wonder why, for instance, there's such a palaver over the stashing of loot in a ventilation shaft; or why Jones's sheriff is so languid about his duty when a cop-killer is on the loose; or why the hunted Moss doesn't just make for the nearest airport. As ever with the Brothers, you get the impression that it's the possibilities of form that really interest them, not any particular urge to entertain or move. There are moments of bloody violence here, yet never do we feel the simple pity for a human life lost.

This emotionless cool reaches a startling new level towards the end of the film, when one of the main characters dies – off-stage. Hitchcock once took a risk in killing off Janet Leigh in Psycho after 45 minutes that were almost entirely from her point of view. This time, the camera arrives at another motel – most of the killings seem to happen in motels – and we discover that the latest corpse is that of someone we've been following the whole movie. What nerve! But, in retrospect, you might also think, "What contempt for your audience!"

This cavilling may seem rather ungrateful, when so few directors these days take any risks at all. And in the character of the implacable bogeyman, Bardem is pretty wonderful, despite a haircut that makes him look like a psychotic cousin of the Monkees. He's an atrocious one-off, right down to his weapon of choice – a stun gun, more often used in the slaughter of cattle. He has a fun way with door handles, too.

So, yes, you should probably see No Country for Old Men, even if it does bow out with a baffling little coda featuring an old timer's meditation on the fact that he's estranged from his father. Have we any idea why this might be of relevance? Just chalk it up to the Coen Brothers' quirkiness – a lore unto itself, for good and for ill.