At this point it is not possible to determine the level of greatness attained by the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men."
Oh, it's clearly an A. That much could not be more obvious. The question is whether or not it will rise to that mythical A+, the iconic, masterpiece film. The reason for this uncertainty is the nature of virtually every Coen brothers picture I've ever seen. With the brothers' films the first viewing is only the beginning. Subsequent re-watchings always deepen the appreciation and enjoyment of their films. "No Country for Old Men" will likely be no different. The thought arrived very clearly within the first fifteen minutes: "I'm probably going to be watching this again. I'll probably be watching this many times again."
The plot, themes, and characters are pure Coen brothers. This is in spite of being an adaptation from a novel - which my father insists is amazing - by Cormac Mccarthy.
The film begins with gorgeous images of the Texan deserts and soon introduces us to Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin.) Hunting for antelope out in the wilderness he comes across quite the scene: four parked cars, half a dozen bloody corpses, bullets all over the ground, a dying Mexican begging for water, a pickup truck full of heroin, and a satchel with $2 million in cash. Moss leaves with the money and makes his way back to his wife (Kelly MacDonald) and their trailer park home. Later he returns to the crime scene with water for the Mexican. It's here that he's attacked and is forced to flee, leaving his truck behind and thus revealing that he's the one who has the money.
This will come to be the gravest mistake he could possibly make as it unleashes upon him one of the Coen brother's greatest characters: the vicious, brilliant, psychopathic killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem in an Oscar-caliber performance.) Chigurh is exhilarating to watch as he methodically hunts down Moss, leaving a trail of bodies wherever he goes. (Next time I see the movie I'm going to keep a tally of how many people he murders.) He's comparable to the terminator except he's more badass even with his ridiculous haircut.
In the middle of this monumental mess is a tired Texas sheriff named Ed Tom Bell played by Tommy Lee Jones, an honorable man who is no match for the brutal Chigurh and the other hired guns who have been sent to retrieve the money.
Fans of the Coens are likely to see some parallels between "Old Men" and the brothers' masterpiece "Fargo." Both films involve ordinary people - Moss in "Old Men" and William H. Macy's Jerry Lundegaard in "Fargo" - who foolishly involve themselves in criminal activity as a shortcut to financial success. What may seem like an easy, clean scheme then multiplies exponentially into a brutal, violent affair with killing after killing. In both films we see deeply sociopathic characters - Chirgurh in "Old Men" and the pair of Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) and Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) in "Fargo" - commit great evils. This amorality is then radically juxtaposed with the decency and nobility of the law enforcement characters of Marge Gunderson in "Fargo" and Bell in "Old Men." All these characters and themes are then presented against a beautiful, American background with wide open spaces: the snowy plains of Minnesota in "Fargo" and the Texan deserts of "Old Men."
Despite these similarities "Old Men" is still fresh and lively and does not seem like a retread of where the Coens have been in past films. They're not making "Fargo 2" here. The Coens are simply working within their oeuvre. It's no different than Martin Scorsese making "The Departed" after having done "Casino," "Goodfellas," and "Mean Streets." The themes and ideas that excite the Coens are rich enough to inspire a lifetime worth of films.
As might be apparent, I'm quite a fan of "Fargo." One of my personal heroes, Roger Ebert - the Zeus of film critics - named it the fourth best film of the '90s, beaten only by "Goodfellas," "Hoop Dreams," and "Pulp Fiction." In my pantheon of favorite '90s cinematic perfections I'd wager only "Malcolm X" and "Crumb" as potential challengers. For some reason the word that just keeps returning over again is "rich." It's just a film brimming with life and meaning from beginning to end. Everything in it is burning. Characters, dialogue, cinematography, acting, plot - all perfect. It's just a film to pop in again and again. Sometimes I'll watch it just to spend time with Marge Gunderson, the lovable pregnant police chief who unravels the whole case. While I may be uncertain about "Fargo" being the best film of the '90s what I can say for certain is that Marge is my favorite cinematic character of all time. It's hard to imagine a more likable burst of sunshine than her.
I gush over "Fargo" to illustrate a point: "No Country For Old Men" might be as good as, possibly even better than, "Fargo." It's a radical thought that I never expected to have. The Coen brothers made their masterpiece and that was that. They'd never come anywhere near that peak. Some films are just so perfect that you never expect the director to ever come near them again. They're just so rare. Is anyone expecting Steven Spielberg to make a film better than "Schindler's List"? How about for Darren Aronofsky to top "Requiem for a Dream"?
But it looks like they might have done it. I mean just with characters alone they're up there with "Old Men." Bardem as Chigurh is almost the mirror opposite of Marge Gunderson. He's a character just as hypnotic, authoritative, seductive and endlessly cool. He's so compelling and focused in his mission that, despite his stone cold heart, a part of you even roots for him to come out on top.
But as I said, the film is still at least two or three more viewings away from knowing for sure - and that task is one I'm really anticipating.