‘Country’ separates the bad from the evil

The Coen Brothers update the Western for the age of multinational drug trafficking.

Michael Garberich

Next summer, say late July, when the sky hasn’t freed a drop all season, scoop up a clump of dirt and crush it in your hand. The wind might dust the powder from your palm, but as for those bits beneath your nails and painted into the creases of your hand – the patterned stress of your fist drawn in your skin from birth – those will be the remains of “No Country for Old Men,” the Coen Brothers’ arid and enlightening adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, splattered with money, drugs and bodies along the border between Texas and Mexico.

“No Country for Old Men”

DIRECTED BY: Ethan and Joel Cohen
STARRING: Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones
PLAYING AT: Uptown Theater, 2906 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, (612) 825-6006

Joel and Ethan Coen lay a barren Southwestern God’s Country never graced by the prelapsarian Genesis that was comfortably ridden between good and evil. Instead, there’s evil, and then there’s ambivalence, dangling from evil’s right hand, already fallen and ready to fall farther. Their country isn’t as your father or your grandfather knew it (that is, as you imagined they knew it). In “No Country,” no surprise, men (and there aren’t many women) aren’t governed by any hand-me-down patriarchal writs; here, you flip a coin and in God you’d better trust – that sound a coin makes when it rings off your nail, that’s death tolling for thee.

Dividing the story is the Unholy Trinity of fatherless sons: Sheriff Bell (an ironical, quick-tongued Tommy Lee Jones, doubling as the world’s most limited omniscient narrator), the morally confounded ranch hand Lewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the self-anointed arbiter whose name sounds as if he were coughed out of an upright goat, because he probably was.

“No Country” begins with Bell’s voiced-over recount of a 16-year-old boy who killed a girl because he could, and would again, because why not? When he confesses he can’t understand it, his helpless ring echoes with more helplessness: What’s there to understand about chaos? This is the pulpy, lawless country of drug smuggling in the Wild West, where the sheriff can’t tell right from wrong, where that moral dichotomy’s been stripped of its consequence and reduced to two sides of the same indiscriminate coin.

While hunting coyotes in the desert valley, Moss sights a covey of abandoned pickups. The Mexican bodies left to swell inside have been long abandoned by the souls that God, or something like Him, never bothered to retrieve. The trucks’ loads are stacks of heroin tightly packed and wrapped in plastic, shaded beneath a tarpaulin; a case of $2 million in neat bundles is Moss’ forbidden fruit. But when there are drugs, there’s money, and when there’s drug money, there’s someone looking for it. So when Moss lapses and totes the case back to his trailer where his wife’s watching television on the couch (Kelly Macdonald), Anton Chigurh starts looking for him.

Bardem’s Chigurh is thick-necked, thick-nosed, thick as a sirloin slaughterhouse with a haircut like an alter boy and carrying a weapon more commonly, if still not properly, used on beef cattle. His law is simple, if backward; most importantly, he abides by it: Just because you don’t deserve to die, doesn’t mean you don’t deserve not to die. And in this country, if no one’s necessarily good, the better-than-bad at least deserve a chance – when he doesn’t have a clear reason to kill, out comes the coin. As Chigurh tells a gas station attendant: “What do you stand to win? Everything. Call it, Friend-O.”

The Coen Brothers’ usual arch humor slithers beneath each glorified death, and it’s this contrapuntal arrangement that heightens the stakes of Moss’ and Bell’s cat-and-mouse chase from do-or-die to paradoxical do-then-die. In the lawless West, Chigurh’s precision is the nearest these three bastard sons and their existential quandaries come to order, and it’s an order the Coen Brothers have fine-tuned with a continual vacillation between restraint and excess.

When not staggering through the open desert, Moss and Chigurh hound one another on the dim and crowded evening streets of a small Texas town, pacing on opposing sides of closed doors in drab, roadside motels. The soundtrack is as bare as the landscape, but in both instances, the scarcity fills a void otherwise occupied by bankrupt devices, as well as tribute McCarthy’s clean, virtually unpunctuated prose. On rare occasions a tuned-down ambience rises as if from beneath the dust and blood, otherwise it’s all steel rods punching through deadbolts and bullets tearing apart doorjambs, as the men on either side measure their heaving breaths. And each limited breath seethes from these fallen men like paltry attempts at resuscitation.

Men in “No Country” are no longer trying to inspire the good to squelch the evil; they’re breathing out as much evil as they can and hoping they have enough to save themselves. But in their country, the force marked for command is beyond them, beyond any one of them and all three of them, and finally left to chance. And this is where the film rings truest, despite all its fancy and gory grandeur.

While “American Gangster” (over-reductive, plainly black-and-white, a case study in successful horizontal integration) is the based-on-true events tale that has critics declaring the Western’s due bow before the city gangster, “No Country for Old Men” is a stalwart relic of innovation in an industry of two-faced coins sharply ringing off all of our nails.