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No Exit


Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men establishes its key themes in its opening sequences. In the film's second passage, from a rocky rise over a dusty Southwestern landscape, a sweaty, grizzled hunter carefully lines up a rifle shot on a herd of antelope. The shot rips out, and the herd scatters. Perhaps a buck has been wounded, but the bullet doesn't bring him down. Eventually, the hunter discovers a thin trail of blood, but throughout a long march across the desert hardpan, he never catches sight of his wounded game. Preparation and persistence may not yield satisfactory results. In the picture's first sequence, a deputy takes a man into custody, handcuffs him, places him into a cruiser and drives him to jail. Shortly later, the deputy is dead and the arrested man is at large. Evil is an unfathomable, relentless and merciless foe. Adapted by the Coen brothers from Cormac McCarthy's spare, bleak novel, No Country for Old Men is a showcase of brilliant, minimalist acting, a visual masterpiece by cinematographer Roger Deakins, and an uncomfortable philosophical challenge. It is not a crowd pleaser. The story involves the death dance between the hunter, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a trailer-park resident and sometime welder, and Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a cunning killer of staggering heartlessness, his preferred weapon a compressed-air bolt thruster used to slaughter cattle. Moss and Chigurh get crosswise when the hunter stumbles into a drug deal gone fatally awry. Who started the shooting and why is never revealed. Perhaps 10 people are dead, and one is dying. Cautiously poking around the grisly scene, Moss finds a truckload of heroin and ultimately a satchel with $2 million in cash. He takes the money, and what happens to the drugs, we never learn. Moss incorrectly assumes that all the players in the drug deal are dead and that the $2 million is his with which to build a new life for himself and his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald). Unfortunately, like the original Terminator, Chigurh is on his trail, shedding the blood of innocent bystanders at every gas station and cut-rate motel along the way. Meanwhile, on the trail of both men is the tired local sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a spiritually stymied man nearing retirement and wondering what exactly life is all about.

Just as the film sloughs off the usual duty of answering questions attendant to the details of its story, it bothers with plot cohesion only indifferently. We think that Chigurh has been hired at some point by the drug wholesaler (Stephen Root), and that maybe Chigurh has double crossed him. That would then account for why the wholesaler, who is never given a name, hires Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) to find Chigurh. But what we aren't told is how Wells manages to find Moss so easily, how, in turn, Chigurh knows that Wells is after him, and throughout, after Moss ditches the tracking device he finds buried in the satchel, Chigurh nonetheless seems to know almost beforehand every move Moss makes. Moreover, the picture deviates from all conventional narrative strategy by staging its climactic gun battle off screen. We learn who shoots whom when Bell shows up to investigate, but we don't see the action itself. Like most everything, this movie seems to submit that it just doesn't matter. Men live, men die, now or later. Action only buys time, a short amount or a shorter amount. Happenstance is far more important than virtue. Justice is a wish rather than a condition.

The odd plotting decisions might have been deemed carelessness on the part of filmmakers less talented than the Coens. Here, it is their way of commenting on the mysteriousness and capriciousness of human life. We think we have answers for things we don't. The nature of evil eludes us utterly. We regard ourselves more highly than we deserve. We track others by trails of blood, and like animals we are tracked by those who would kill us. Bell tells a friend of the emptiness he feels: 'I thought God would come into my life as I grew older," he says. 'But He didn't." To his wife (Tess Harper), Bell relates a dream about his father, who died young. In the dream the father has gone ahead on a cold camping trip, and Bell understands that his father will be waiting for him with food to eat around a warming fire. 'And then I woke up," he says, the dream but a dream, the implication of comfort in some life to come, a wisp of wishful smoke, poof, gone.

I saw No Country for Old Men a week ago now, and I haven't been able to get it out of my head since.

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