Doodad Kind of Town

"No Country for Old Men," Charlie Wilson update
December 29, 2007, 7:39 pm
Filed under: Coen Brothers

I’m a little late to the party on “No Country for Old Men.” It’s been kicking around the multiplexes for awhile; I’ve been avoiding it as part of my larger quest to stay away from violent, depressing movies. But once I saw “Sweeney Todd,” I had to consider my boycott of all things bleak and bloody to be effectively over, so it was time to take in the Coen Brothers’ latest opus.

Some disclosures: I have not read the Cormac McCarthy novel on which this film is based, nor have I ever seen the Coens’ “Blood Simple” or “Miller’s Crossing.” So I can’t evaluate “No Country for Old Men” in terms of either its source material or of the Coens’ most closely related work.

That being said, I found “No Country for Old Men” to be nearly brilliant at times, maddening at others, and ultimately lacking in any kind of cohesive center. There’s a soullessness to the film that goes beyond the moral emptiness of its main characters, and little indication of who we’re supposed to root for in a story that is as bleak as the parched Texas landscapes on which it takes place.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is out hunting on the West Texas prairie one afternoon when he stumbles upon a murder scene, bloodied bodies scattered among abandoned pickup trucks, along with a stash of heroin. He ignores the pleas for help of the one man still alive at the scene, and takes a pistol from the hand of one of the dead men, plus a satchel containing two million dollars in cash.

Moss moves through this very matter-of-factly, with no hesitation and no indication whatsoever that he might be weighing the possible consequences of his actions. Later though, feeling remorseful about failing to help the survivor, Moss returns to the scene. But others arrive, shooting at Moss and unleashing a pit bull to to attack him. He escapes, but puts his young wife (Kelly MacDonald) on the next bus to her mother’s house in Odessa, and goes on the lam himself.

Of course, someone is coming after him: a hired gun named Anton Chigurh (Jaiver Bardem), a ruthless, soulless killing machine in a bizarre Dutch-boy haircut. Bardem is one of the scariest psychopaths I’ve seen in a long time – not so much cold, but single-minded and frighteningly efficient in pursuit of his prey. He does away with a number of sweet, hapless Texans who in their unfailing politeness and eagerness to help are unable to grasp the depths of his depravity. (Thus we get the Coens’ usual lineup of amusing character cameos, but this time they all end in bloodshed.)

Tommy Lee Jones is Sherriff Tom Bell, who tries to hunt down Chigurh and save Moss. Jones brings an eloquent sense of suffering and world-weariness to his role; there’s a sadness etched into his face which indicates he’s seen too many terrible things in his years on the force and feels the weight of it closing in on him. It’s both suggested and told to us outright (in Jones’ opening narration) that Bell has been broken by the culmination of years of dealing with ever-greater, ever less comprehensible evil. But his journey from idealism and innocence to cruel reality isn’t echoed elsewhere in the film, and doesn’t seem entirely connected to the rest of this particular story.

I keep hearing that Brolin is brilliant in his role, but I can’t see that either. I have no clue why Moss decided to take the money and run. I mean, sure, it’s two million dollars and all – but after you watch Moss get shot at by Chigurgh over and over, repeatedly wounded and repeatedly forced to flee, you’ve gotta ask “DUDE! What were you thinking?” (I’m reminded of Marge Gunderson’s bewildered rumination at the end of “Fargo”: “And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’t you know that? “). I had no sympathy for his character, and after a while, no patience for him either. There’s never a redemptive moment for Moss, let alone a moment in which the clue phone rings and he actually picks up! He’s let unstoppable evil into his life by taking that satchel of cash, but he sadly never seems to grasp that. Perhaps that’s as intended. But I think I can be forgiven for wanting either Brolin or the Coens to show us the wheels turning inside Moss’ head


A day after seeing “Charlie Wilson’s War,” I stumbled upon a History Channel special, “The True Story of Charlie Wilson’s War.” It’s unfortunate that it won’t be aired again soon, because it’s a great companion piece to the film. There are interviews with the real Wilson and Joanne Herring, but the damnedest thing is this: not only is the film very true to the actual events, but some events that were omitted in the film are even more dramatic that what was left in. (Wilson committed a drunken hit-and-run on the night before he was scheduled to leave for a critical fund-raising junket in Pakistan, nearly lost a re-election bid, and suffered congenitive heart failure during the years when he was working to obtain arms for the Afghans. None of that made it into the movie.)

Most amazing of all: Wilson really did watch Dan Rather’s report on Afghanistan while soaking a in a Caesar’s Palace hot tub with three strippers. I’d have sworn that scene was an invention of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, but it turns out – it’s all true!


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