I’ll admit it - I was worried about the Coen Brothers.
In retrospect, it was such a knee-jerk, reactionary point-of-view that it’s shameful for anyone who considers themselves to be of independent mind to admit that they fell in line with it, but I did. After a career-spanning string of nine back-to-back classics, they stumbled a bit - no big deal, it happens to everybody. Yet the Coens had been so great for so long that the slightest misstep had made it seem as if the sky was falling.
And indeed, the rumors of their artistic death were greatly exaggerated. I didn't catch up with Intolerable Cruelty until home video, and while I originally thought it a minor effort I feel as if time has been very kind to it. And while The Ladykillers, on the other hand, may be the only one of their films that I can honestly say isn’t very good, there’s enough within to make it worthwhile (Tom Hanks gives one of his best performances, and the line “We must all have waffles, forthwith!” is one of the greatest that the brothers have ever penned). It's ultimately more uneven than it is truly bad, even if a lot of the humor seemed woefully misguided and out of touch.
It was also followed by the longest gap they’ve ever had between pictures to that point.
While they would never admit it, it very much seemed as if the brothers had decided to step back for a minute and regroup, especially when you consider that the film they came back with was one of the best American movies of the last 25 years.
A personal confession: I first saw No Country for Old Men shortly after indulging for the first time in certain, um...activities which had served to temporarily expand my consciousness in ways which I, as a more nervous type, was not prepared for (in fact, it's safe to say that by "expand my consciousness" I really mean "Make me even more afraid of the world than usual"). I was aching for a Coen comeback, but let’s just say that my state of mind was fragile enough that I was in no way ready for the grim reflection on mortality and the cold indifference of the world with which I was to be presented.
Having read the source novel, I was ready for all of the plot twists - there is one controversial development in particular, retained quite faithfully in the film, which caused me to fear that my copy had somehow been printed with a chapter missing. What I wasn’t ready for was the gut-punch that would come from seeing Cormac McCarthy’s relentless prose translated into such merciless filmmaking. Seeing Javier Bardem stick the cattle prod up to that first poor bastard's forehead, I was riveted. By the time Josh Brolin shot that horrifyingly persistent dog dead, I was in cold sweats. When Tommy Lee Jones gave that last, broken monologue, and I began to suspect that the screen was actually going to cut to black at the exact moment that it in fact did, I wanted to stand up and cheer. I would have, if I hadn’t been so shaken by what I had just seen.
I’ve heard a lot of people complain that the movie is nothing more than a glorified slasher flick, Bardem’s Anton Chigurh a page-boy Jason moving indestructibly through the film ruthlessly mowing down every poor bastard unlucky enough to cross his path. In all honesty, it’s not an inaccurate observation, even as it inadvertently strikes at one of the main strengths of the film. What is the slasher formula other than a metaphor for the unstoppable, ever-lingering threat of our own deaths that hangs over us at all times, always waiting and ready to cut us down when we least expect it? Though rather than de-fang and inure us to the fear of our inevitable ends by putting us in the point-of-view of the killer, cheering as he cuts down one dopey victim after another, the Coens take it very seriously*. You can’t plead, reason, or argue your way out of it. Hell, you can’t even understand it, and you certainly can’t contain it.
You can’t stop what’s coming. All you can do is wait for it.
Nihilistic? Arguably. Honest? Painfully, thrillingly so.
*Though with plenty of dark humor, which only began to reveal itself to me after I recovered from the shell-shock of my initial viewing.
Christopher Sailor is the Programmer of Education for the Atlanta Film Festival. He also waxes cinematic at chrissailor.com