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Walking out of No Country for Old Men (Paramount Vantage), Joel and Ethan Coen's new adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel, I finally understood something about why the Coens' work has always left me cold. The brothers make movies that can be good, even very good, without seeming essential. They can pull off bravura camerawork (Raising Arizona), dark wit (Fargo), or chair-gripping suspense (Miller's Crossing and, now, No Country for Old Men.) What they can't seem to do, at least for me, is make movies that matter. The Coens' movies are effective—diabolically so—without being affecting.
Maybe part of the problem is that black comedy is a tough genre in which to create a masterpiece. With rare exceptions—like Alfred Hitchcock at his best —few filmmakers can move from cynical chuckling to solemn contemplation of the human condition. The Coens seem to have set themselves that very task in No Country for Old Men, and the result, while it may be their most ambitious and successful film in years, remains just a Coen brothers movie, a curio to collect rather than an experience to remember.
That's not to say that there aren't certain images from No Country for Old Men that will haunt you, especially those involving Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a bob-haired golem of a bad guy who lumbers through southwestern Texas amassing what may be the highest per-villain body count in any movie this year. Chigurh wants back his $2 million, a briefcase full of drug money that winds up in the hands of a feckless hunter named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin). But Chigurh is also a born killer of an unfamiliar breed, neither a suave sadist nor a feral beast. He simply seems to regard killing as the natural way to end a conversation. He's lumpen, expressionless, and as unstoppable as an Old Testament curse.
No Country for Old Men is, in essence, an extended three-way chase, in which Chigurh pursues Moss across the sunbaked borderlands while Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) tries to find both, or either, to forestall the carnage that will be inevitable should the two men meet. If you've read any Cormac McCarthy, you're already laughing at that last sentence: Good luck with that forestalling-the-carnage thing! The novelist's world is one of omens and portents, where the worst thing you can imagine has already come to pass and something far worse is on the way. It's easy to see why this fatalistic vision would appeal to the Coens' grim sensibility, but less clear is what their adaptation brings to McCarthy's moral universe.
In the book, the three principals constitute a moral cosmos unto themselves: Jones' Sheriff Bell, a third-generation lawmaker on the verge of retirement, is a holdout from the days when men did the right thing simply because it was the right thing to do. The soulless Chigurh is like an envoy from some evil but inevitable future. And Llewelyn, like us, dwells somewhere in between: He's a thief, but no murderer, and he's tenderly protective of his wife Carla Jean (played here by Scottish actress Kelly McDonald).
On the level of a Western cops-and-robbers thriller, No Country for Old Men leaves very little to be desired. But when the movie shifts into manly-philosophical mode (which is fairly often; there's no shortage of wordy ruminations from Jones' Sheriff Bell on the decay of the social fabric), the sense of urgency dissipates. Even in their best films, the Coens have trouble with endings (witness the mood-destroying Sam Elliot speech that weighs down the final minutes of the otherwise delightful The Big Lebowski). The last scene of No Country for Old Men, in which Bell recounts his dreams to his wife Loretta (Tess Harper) is a tacked-on chunk of Meaning that seems to bear no relation to the tragically futile bloodbath we've just witnessed.
The Coen brothers and Cormac McCarthy share something else besides a bleak worldview: Both the directors and the writer have attracted passionate cult followings in addition to their considerable mainstream success. I can't speak for the McCarthy cultists, but I predict the Coen-heads will be thrilled by No Country for Old Men. Like most of the brothers' films, it looks and sounds terrific, with a spare Carter Burwell score and impeccable cinematography from Roger Deakins, who also shot the season's other big Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Brolin, Bardem, and Jones give monster performances. The Coen brothers have taken McCarthy's mythical, fallen West and made it their own—and maybe that's the problem. At some level, the Coens still seem like two movie-mad brothers lying in their bunk beds, daring each other to imagine ever-more-shocking scenarios: "Dude, what if Javier Bardem went around killing people with a cattle stun gun?" That would be awesome, bro. But not necessarily art.