Sailing to Byzantium

Here’s a forgotten favourite if there ever was one. I first saw the Coen Bros’ No Country For Old Men back when it was new over a decade(!) ago, thought it was the best thing they ever did, and then somehow never saw it again until now. Time has only enhanced my opinion of it: it’s one of the most perfectly constructed movies to come out during my lifetime.

The story, adapted from a Cormac McCarthy novel, is set in Texas in the early 80s. Llewlyan Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad and, finding a briefcase with $2 million, decides to abscond with it. This makes him the target of psychopathic assasin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who has been tasked with recovering the money. Meanwhile, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a well-meaning but ineffectual Sheriff, attempts to track both of them.

And that’s all there is to it. The movie’s approach to narrative is ruthlessly minimalistic, keeping the plot tightly focused on the three way chase. This, in turn, is emphasized by the decision to use virtually no non-diagetic music (only the occasional drone is heard). Ambient sound takes the place of the usual emotional cues – footsteps, the turning of a screw, the cocking of a gun, all become unusually heightened, with stunning, starkly beautiful photography by Roger Deakins.

The how matters so much more than the what, here. And the Coen Bros have such a laser focus on making the cat-and-mouse game as suspenseful as possible that you could almost raise the complaint that it’s more an exercise in style than anything else.

But there’s more to it than that. Llewylan is a man who attempts to exchange his soul for the world, but loses the world as well. As soon as he grabs the money, his life turns into such an absurd nightmare that the possibility of him happily escaping into wealth is never convincing: he just becomes a man living in fear of inevitable doom. Chigurh is such a monster that he barely registers as human, an implacable man who certainly isn’t in the business of killing for any material reward. But his own dialogue betrays how he is a man in thrall to a strange, nihilistic fatalism and is simply acting out the absurd consequences of his philosophy. He too, in his own way, has called a sort of doom upon himself. Ed is the moral centre of the movie, a man who tries to make sense of the evil he sees, doubtful if good will ultimately conquer it, but believing that it’s a fight worth having.

With an ending that can be modestly described as ambiguous, the movie isn’t interested in leading the audience to any sort of neat thesis statement of its themes. Rather, it presents its story as a question mark to be pondered. It’s shockingly violent, but never feels exploitatively so, perhaps because it has no interest in making it easily digestible for us by way of typical cinema.

So yeah, again, top ten list fodder. Don’t know why I put off revisiting it for so long.

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About Josh W

A Catholic. Likes to write stuff and draw pictures.
This entry was posted in fragments of culture, pop culture and its discontents and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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