– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.
So, this guy – he walks into this little mom and pop store in the middle of nowhere. He comes up to the counter, and he slaps a coin down on the table-top. He pushes it toward the little old man behind the counter, and he asks: “What’s the most you ever lost in a coin toss?”
Call it, friend-o.
Right now, I don’t think I’d be alienating anybody in saying that right now, America has no greater cinematic credit than the Brothers’ Coen – they’re at the top of this new class of American filmmakers, and in many ways they seem to define the particular style of this New Wave: a mix of influences old and new, combined with the intent of creating something unique out of the osmosis. Their fingerprints can be seen everywhere from Wes Anderson to Rian Johnson – with their idiosyncratic, nervous characters in a heightened environment, seemingly at ease with it, in films defined by their unique and constant visual style that nevertheless changes to fit every subject where appropriate. Still, it’s hard to place the exact moment they came to prominence – more than likely, theirs was a slow, almost inobservable ride upward rather than any one film, propelled by the continuing critical acclaim of their past films. First came Blood Simple, in ’85 – and, word began to spread.
More than any of their other films, this one in particular owes a huge debt to Sam Peckinpah, with it’s hard men roaming around the sparse, empty Texas landscape, connecting occasionally and shooting at each other, something the Coens willingly acknowledge, and – like those films, and with the Coen Brothers’ previous films like Fargo and Raising Arizona – this one takes a particular joy in presenting as authentic and hermetic a vision of the time and place it’s representing as it can. Here, long, drawling accents and tired, old eyes mix with foppish haircuts and a polyester shine – and personally, as a Texan, I can well attest that there are a lot of places outside of the metroplex that haven’t changed at all from the nineteen eighties presented in the film. Sheriffs are still amiably personal old men that seem faintly dazed by the things coming over the radio, and as far back as I can remember, there have always been those faintly dingy hotels – but then, those are everywhere. In trying to gain an authenticity, the Coens could not have found better than our very own Tommy Lee Jones, himself a native of the region the film centers around. While everyone else does conduct themselves admirably, and I do bestow upon them the label of “honorary Texans,” it’s through him, more than anyone else, that the film really sells itself as cut from from the cloth of the area.
Initially, the film seems to be about three men, none of whom ever come face to face – and, 0n the one side, there’s Llewelyn. Llewelyn’s face is rough and hewn from the best leather – a kind of “cowboy in a world with no more room for cowboys,” as one critic put it. His burden comes to him initially out of luck, while following game over the foothills and plains of windswept Texas. Coming over a rise, the scene laid out before him presents an opportunity that I’m not sure any man in the same situation could resist: trucks left parked halfway open, bodies splayed this-a-way and that on the grass. And, in one of the trucks, a quiet, thirsty man begging for water through dried and cracked lips. “I told you I ain’t got no aqua,” he says – and, then his eyes fall on the real prize: a satchel with two million dollars in cash stuffed inside. Llewellyn absconds with the money, stashing it under his trailer, and – yet, he finds himself drawn back to the man in the truck, later than night. His initial aim is to bring the guy some water, partially out of guilt. And, then behind him, the truck lights pop on, always kept in silhouette, and Llewellyn finds himself chased into the river. Llewelyn, a sweaty, nervous Vietnam veteran with hooded eyes and a mustache that just won’t quit as portrayed by Josh Brolin, seems initially to have his own agenda, and he does – to keep living, to support himself and his wife. Not even necessarily to prop themselves up into a better life, but to sustain in the type of harsh, rugged environment that typifies McCarthy’s world. His wife finds herself apprehensive, not knowing what kind of bad craziness her husband might have brought on them in his quest to keep this money for the two of them, and eventually her fears are proven correct. She’s a character that is more than she initially appears, with her defining moment coming just before her death in the second to last scene, being the only one in the film with the cajones to stare down the reaper himself. Perhaps it’s because she’s lost so much throughout the rest of the film, but there’s no fear in her voice in that final scene.
Following him closely is Sheriff Bell, played with a real native twang in his voice by Tommy Lee Jones – and, there’s a constant weariness to him, despite his attempts at putting on a solid face, and a dismay at the ever-growing grisliness present at the crime scenes he ends up at. “There was this boy I sent to Huntsville here a while back,” he tells his protege near the beginning of the film,”… he killed a fourteen-year-old girl. Papers said it was a crime of passion but he told me there wasn’t any passion to it. Told me that he’d been planning to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. … I don’t know what to make of that. I surely don’t.” Constantly, he arrives at the aftermath of this new boy by consequence of their mutual pursuit, blowing people’s heads clean through with a cattle gun, who seems to leave a bigger and bigger trail of blood everywhere he goes – but, is he a new kind of evil, or just another product of the tide that seems to be washing over the world, of late?
This is a quiet film, sometimes unflinchingly so, resembling nothing so much as a slow, almost funereal, burn. The Brothers Coen keep pulling their string tighter and tighter, as characters close in on each other, unaware of one another’s presence in the dark, or crest a hill overlooking a stark and windswept desert, where bison mill about lazily and cars lay strewn in the grass with their insides spilled out, and their owners not far away in the same condition. There’s one scene in particular that does well as a prime example – Moss is in a darkened hotel room, sitting on the bed with his gun propped toward the door as his pursuers make their way through the hall. Their footsteps slowly die away into the distance, and the next sound we hear is the scraping of the lightbulb in the hall being twisted out of it’s outlet in the ceiling. All in the dark. Always, the slow and sure Steadicam, moving us silently along a wheat-bordered Texas road, or toward the light-filled crime scene, off in the distance – and, we know what’s there as well as the Sheriff does, even if it’s initially blind-siding. Always the quiet, always the silence – sometimes blanketing a scene completely, and sometimes filling the spaces between words with implication – and it’s never allowed to be comfortable. Always, there’s a nervous tension behind every look, behind every haggard breath. During one scene in particular, when Llewelyn finds himself engaged in a gunfight with the black angel of death that spills out right onto the street, our only sounds are gunshots followed by footsteps that quicken rapidly in pace, and – then Chigurh has gone, without a sound. Llewelyn reels along, moving as quickly as he can away from the street, coming to rest against a wire-fence in the half-light. The silence is finally broken when Llewelyn asks for the clothes off a passing bystander – but, it isn’t a sigh of relief. The knot in our stomachs doesn’t go down.
And then, in the middle of it all, there’s Anton Chigurh, portrayed by Javier Bardem as a force of nature that no man on Earth can move, a sort of modern counterpart to the Angel of Death from The Seventh Seal – wandering slowly toward his intended target, stopping here and there to indulge in his duty toward fate, and the coin in his pocket. He carries with him a sawed-off shotgun in the one hand, and in the other a captive bolt pistol – the kind they use to kill cows with – and, the first time we meet him in full, he’s choking a man to death on the tile of a bathroom floor. Very rarely does he speak, and when he does, it’s in a weird sort of Midwestern-Hispanic laughing street rumble, that remains almost entirely without inflection or emotion the whole way through. But interestingly, though for most of the film he does remain the embodiment of the same kind of archetype of pure-sociopathy that the Coen’s have employed previously – most prominently in Fargo with the far-eyed blond killer Gaear Grimswud and in Barton Fink, Carl “Madman” Mundt – there are sudden moments where he seems to break down, and to falter. Especially near the end of the film, where – upon visiting Moss’ wife and offering her a chance to call the face-down side of the coin – he becomes visibly confused and a little frightened when faced with the self-responsibility for his actions, if only briefly. And, it’s directly after this that he finds himself in a head-on collision, and bleeding like a stuck pig on the side of the road – asking to borrow a shirt off a polite neighbor boy, and running off with a catch in his voice, telling the two boys that he “was never there.”
The film pulls a narrative stunt that actually had certain critics (like AICN’s Massawyrm – who, let’s be honest, is really only read because he sounds insane, and Jonathan Rosenbaum, most famously) actively calling the directors “mean-spirited” and deceitful for doing such a thing – as, halfway through, the man we’ve been following the whole film and that we’ve assumed to be our focal point is revealed not to be – and suddenly, everything that had come before takes on another meaning entirely. For, what was before an existential chase film between the fop-haired Anton and the cowboy-booted Llewelyn in the Texas of the eighties has gradually transformed into Sheriff Bell’s reaction to a new and startlingly violent culture that’s left him behind. The world does not wait for us in its movements, and if we are not careful, we’ll find ourself lost, as if we’d walked down the wrong side-street. When doing his best to pry into all of it, Bell finds himself visiting his Uncle, and he tells him that he plans to retire soon, because he feels “over-matched” by the inhumanity in his environs that seems to be welling over the sides. But, his uncle tells him, the region’s always been violent. Bell’s crime is assuming that it would have waited for him to catch up.
Is the film nihilistic in it’s philosophies? I don’t know that I’d agree with that to the extent that so many other critics and reviewers seem to. Anton Chigurh is certainly a nihilistic character, and – yes, the bad guy does “get away” at the end of the film, but his armor has been broken. He’s bleeding, and he’s been wounded, and is revealed to be as flesh and blood as the rest of us. No – myself, I think the point of the film is summed up entirely by its title, and Sheriff Bell’s last monologue, near the end of the film.
After his retirement, Bell finds himself awake of a nights, startled by images, dreams of his father –
“…two of ’em. Both had my father in ’em. It’s peculiar. I’m older now then he ever was by twenty years. So in a sense he’s the younger man. Anyway, first one I don’t remember too well but it was about meetin’ him in town somewhere, he’s gonna give me some money. I think I lost it. The second one, it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin’ through the mountains of a night. Goin’ through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin’. Never said nothin’ goin’ by. He just rode on past… and he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin’ fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. ‘Bout the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold. And I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up.”
Glenn Heath’s intruing entry for his Number Six spot, Wong Kar-Wai’s “In The Mood For Love,” can be found here.