The villain as virus in "No Country for Old Men": You can't stop what's coming


Starring Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, Tess Harper and Garret Dillahunt. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Streaming on Starz, Amazon Prime and YouTube. 122 minutes. 14A

(4 stars out of 4)

A lockdown repeat viewing of the Coen Brothers' exceptional western, with its doleful refrain of "You can't stop what's coming," had me thinking of how much Javier Bardem's ineluctable villain, Anton Chigurh, resembles the raging coronavirus.

"He's a peculiar man," someone says of Chigurh.

"You might even say he's got principles."

That counts for something in this existential thriller, where hard men surrender soft values and morality is on the run. What's really peculiar, though, is that the speaker, an unsavory character played by Woody Harrelson, is referring to Chigurh, who is a serial killer.

Anton Chigurh's conscience is as brutal as his haircut. He chooses victims at random, deciding their fate on a coin toss. He kills with a cattle stun gun -- man or steer, it makes no difference how they die. Bardem makes Chigurh the most interesting screen villain in years.

He proceeds from a personal belief system, twisted by his view of a world that has lost all meaning.

Chigurh has that much in common with Ed Tom Bell, the small-town West Texas sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones, who sets the stage with a weary narration about changing times.

As Roger Deakins' alert camera tracks a landscape so desolate as to seem prehistoric, Jones speaks of past days when violent crime wasn't the norm. Days when a sheriff didn't have to carry a gun, because even troublemakers respected the law.

But now it's 1980, the year the movie and source author Cormac McCarthy sets as a pivotal moment of societal rot. Sheriff Bell is pondering retirement. He's chilled by these winds of change. You either stand against them or let yourself be flattened by them, but your soul remains in jeopardy regardless.

"I don't know what to make of it, I surely don't," he says, his voice as aimless as a tumbleweed.

Maybe the sheriff just thinks too much. That's not a problem afflicting Texas cowboy Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin, outstanding in a breakthrough role), who stumbles upon a big mess and a bigger moral dilemma while out poaching antelope.

A drug deal has gone sour. Bullet-ridden bodies lie in the hot sun. Moss doesn't plan to stick around to sort things out, especially when he discovers a briefcase containing $2 million.

A welder by trade and a Vietnam vet by experience, Moss isn't much for conversation or introspection, and he's as stubborn as a raccoon. But deep down, a heart beats beneath his dirty shirt. He loves his devoted wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald, superb in a small role) and he's capable of humanity.

Humanity won't get you far in this fearful new world, though. Not when you insist on carrying $2 million of somebody else's money, and more than one person is looking for it. "You can't stop what's coming," a wise man says, and that message can be taken various ways.

No Country for Old Men is top-drawer Coen Bros., a return to form after the comic distractions of The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty. It's a film that engages the mind and touches the soul.

The familiar Coens humour is there, but muted. The brothers, working from an adapted novel for the first time, are more intent on making a serious observation about the decline of the American spirit. In many respects the film, like McCarthy's book, is a lament for the loss of common civility.

Bell sums it up: "I think when you quit hearing `sir' and `ma'am,' the rest is sure to follow."

He's not the only one reflecting on the curious coldness at the centre of modern life, even in a place where the sun never stops beating down. "No Country for Old Men" is perhaps the bleakest film ever to win Best Picture at the Oscars -- it also took gold for directing, supporting actor (Bardem) and adapted screenplay -- but it's entirely deserving of every honour.

(This review was originally published in the Toronto Star on Nov. 9, 2007.)

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© 2016 M.L. Bream