Let’s begin at the end. Or, rather, the ending. After all, that’s where the Atonement crowd seems to get tripped up — the moment that makes the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men not only impossible for some to truly love but also the most ambiguous film the Oscars have ever laid a big, fat Best Picture smooch on.
Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Bell sits across the kitchen table from his wife (Tess Harper) and tells her about a dream he’s had in which his dead father rides ahead of him on horseback, leaving him behind. When he finishes the story, he simply says, ”And then I woke up.” The screen goes black. The end credits roll. What is this, The Sopranos? Bell’s dream doesn’t make much sense to him. But neither does anything he’s witnessed up until that point: the thought process of a guy like Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who’d risk his wife’s life for a suitcase full of drug money he’ll never live long enough to spend; a coin-flipping psycho like Anton Chigurh (Best Supporting Actor winner Javier Bardem), with his Rubber Soul haircut and an air gun used to off folks like fatted cattle; all those corpses littering the West Texas landscape. There’s no place for an old man like him in this new country of senseless killing.
Four months after No Country hit theaters, it’s hard to figure out what’s more surprising about the film: that it waltzed off with four Oscars, or that it came from the Coens. In the underwhelming grab bag of extras — three measly featurettes — on this nicely timed release, the cast and crew seem just as stumped. In a making-of, Jones calls it both ”a horror film” and ”a comedy.” Others see it as ”a Western,” even ”a noir.” The Coens say it’s ”as close as we’ll come to a kind of action movie.” All of which, of course, are dead-on.
As Joel (not to be confused with his motor-mouthed brother, Ethan — someone shut that guy up!) said from the stage of the Kodak Theatre, they’ve been playing in their own ”corner of the sandbox” since they started. Yet in their 1985 debut, Blood Simple, the fraternal pranksters diluted their film’s violence with black humor and daredevil camera jujitsu. And in 1990’s noir puzzle Miller’s Crossing, they piled on so many double and triple crosses, it was hard to feel anything but dizzy when the smoke cleared. It wasn’t until 1996’s Fargo (which won them an Original Screenplay Oscar) that you could feel the siblings grappling with something more mature, more tragic, beneath the trickery — that they were dealing with people, not characters. No Country fulfills that promise. It’s a story told by a pair of grown-ups finally venturing beyond their sandbox. A
Want more? See our photo gallery looking back at a quarter century of twisted tales from the Coen brothers