Tommy Lee Jones
The release of a new Coen brother’s film, like a new Ridley Scott picture, is an event. Few director’s achieve that level of expectation: in Joel and Ethan’s case, the slow burn from Fargo through O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Big Lebowski has made audiences expect something giddy with original brilliance. Get ready, then, for a bit of a departure as they leave their traditional off-beat territory to flirt unflinchingly with the real world of drug-money and hardened criminality with not a flying rug in sight.
The brothers’ chosen form this time is the chase thriller, a genre mastered by Alfred Hitchcock, among others. Trying to take on the masters of the convention and matching them is no mean feat pinning them to the ground like some steer wrestler and shooting them through the head with an improvised air-gun is another matter. Retaining what is distinctive and fresh about their approach and applying it to a well-worn genre this is definitely where the Coens have succeeded.
Based on the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy and set in 1980’s west Texas, we are thrust into the world of mysterious psychopathic killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) on the trail of a missing bag containing $2 million, which has fallen into the hands of trailer-trash scavenger Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin). Set to try and unpick the mess of a massacre in the desert is ageing Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) who finds himself on the trail of them both, but fast losing heart as he struggles to understand the brutality and bloody-mindedness of the new breed of drug-running criminals. Meanwhile, hitman Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) is recruited by a mysterious businessman to track down and kill Chigurh, which takes them all on a road leading inexorably to a showdown on the Mexican border.
It would be easy for a lesser film-making team to make a hash of this sprawling story with its several key characters and twisting plot. Even the Coens struggle with some of the finer plot points leaving one or two key moments frustratingly unexplained never a good feature in a thriller. But it quickly becomes apparent how accomplished Joel and Ethan are as storytellers as we flit from Chigurh to Moss to Bell, each with their partial understanding of events, with an ease that makes the whole thing seem effortless.
To carry this off, the Coens have once again brought together a cast of great power and presence, with Javier Bardem easily stealing the mantle of scariest man on film since Robert Blake’s turn as the Mystery Man in Lost Highway, making unstoppable malice a frightening reality. Brolin, as a sort of modern-day prospector who hits the mother lode and is forced to flee from the forces he has unleashed, convinces with both conscience and balls of steel. Jones, the Coen’s wholesome archetype, brings the stoicism, wisdom and dry wit needed to make us all feel a little better about the odds of good triumphing over evil.
Less fairytale-like than their other movies, the film leaves you feeling a little like you’ve been shot in the guts and forced to stitch yourself up. The trademark Coen humour is there, but there is a darkness far stronger than at the end of Fargo, its closest companion in the canon, largely down to the gradual loss of nerve of the forces of good. Less interesting as social comment, the film is still a masterpiece of storytelling from the world’s finest screenwriting partnership.