There’s something untranslatable about the last line of a novel. Even though maybe it shouldn’t, it essentially sums up everything–not just the scene or the story or the characters, but the reader’s experience as well… (whether the writer’s experience of writing the book is summed up in the line is, obviously, immaterial). With No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers translate that moment in to filmic terms, which is a film first in my experience.
The film is a masterful immersive experience, the wide open Texas plains, the gradual, somehow disinterested narrative, Tommy Lee Jones’s soothing performance of an also somewhat disinterested character. The minute Josh Brolin walks across the plains, looking for the money he and the viewer knows must be there, No Country opens up and swallows the viewer. The maw invisibly closes. Javier Bardem is a red herring. While he’s fantastic, the character is fantastic, he’s not the compelling aspect. Brolin’s generally unlikable character, however, his experience–for much of the film–is the viewer’s reference point. The Coen’s don’t even need to do it in a standard way (I kept thinking about Robocop, how Verhoeven realized he needed to make the violence as graphic as possible to make the audience care about a character they’d known fifteen minutes)… I think they’ve got it down just from Brolin spying the money. The viewer cares about him because, for a few key moments, he or she and the character are the same–realizing the same things at the same time, thinking the same thing. It’s not big realization stuff, it’s empirical observation followed by a conclusion, which is different.
I’m wondering if that immersion is solely responsible for the Coen’s handling of the passing of time. No Country for Old Men doesn’t have a pace, it doesn’t go fast, it doesn’t drag. It just plays out. So I guess the playing out is a result of the immersion… But there are no rises or falls in action, in tenseness. The tenseness is on the scene level. There’s oddly no air of dread hanging over Old Men all together–something one of the characters brings up near the end: what, exactly, could happen differently. There’s no expectation of the coming scene. There’s some foreshadowing, but it’s not the same thing. No Country doesn’t create any anticipation… again, it’s an immersion result. Such effective immersion isn’t a new thing, but in a thriller, one would think it was cross-purpose. But it’s not. No Country for Old Men simply transcends the genre, possibly without even thinking about it (the Coens, usually so ready to be recognized for the dissimilarities between their films, draw no attention to No Country’s genre… in many ways, it’s the least Coen-identified film of theirs in fifteen years).
They also learned how to cast. Usually, their casts draw attention to themselves through familiarity or peculiarity (mostly how distracting William H. Macy got playing his standard in Fargo). Here, not at all. While Jones is playing a somewhat familiar role (though I’ve never actually seen him play a Texas lawman before), he’s doing something entirely different–he’s not a reluctant everyman compelled to act. Javier Bardem takes the film’s hardest role and makes it look like the easiest (he takes his character, a filmic villain only marginally different from Halloween’s Michael Myers and the like, and makes him real). Brolin’s deceptively good as the not-quite protagonist–every time I thought anyone could do the job, he did something to make himself essential.
When No Country started and was in Texas, I tried to force myself to look for some connection to Blood Simple. I quickly gave up, because–as usual–the Coen Brothers were doing something different. Except with this one, they put the film before their name brand quirkiness.