Hywel Williams

Holding up a mirror to America: views on ‘No Country for Old Men’

Holding up a mirror to America: views on 'No Country for Old Men'
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‘No country for old men’?  Texas looks eerily magnificent though in Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest take on the western genre. Horses gallop, men drawl, and gals do the listening as the heat seeps out of the screen and into a cinema near you. It’s nice perhaps to be reminded of what the sun looks like in these winter days - but NCFOM is hardly this season’s latest feel-good movie. A spring in the step and a song in the heart are not the most likely reactions to this strangely irresolute - but relentlessly downbeat - narrative. The movie’s title-being a line from W B Yeats’s ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ has the kind of cultured ambiguity we’ve come to expect from Hollywood’s artiest film directors. Yeats celebrates the ‘sensual music’ of ‘the young in one another’s arms.’  Souls may become ‘sick with desire’ but then find relief by being gathered ‘into the artifice of eternity.’  Death though has a much bigger dominion in the big country that is Coen land. And if there aren’t many old guys around it must be because the activities of Javier Bardem’s psychotic killer ensure high mortality rates among the young to middle aged.

Texas in 1980 - the time of the movie’s setting - had yet to experience the impact of Governor George W Bush’s reintroduction of the death penalty. Even so, the body count is pretty impressive as Josh Brolin’s character stumbles across a drugs deal that has gone wrong out in the desert. Brolin plays a Vietnam veteran who is out hunting deer and therefore performing a further role in terms of filmic historical allusion. Michael Cimino’s 30 year old masterpiece haunts NCFOM - a film whose menace also owes much to Clint Eastwood ambiguous hero-villains of the 1980’s. Brolin takes $2 million from the carnage and runs for it-pursued first by Bardem and then by Tommy Lee Jones’s world-weary sheriff who thinks that things ain’t what they used to be and that all the killing’s just got out of control.

Iraq does for the Coens what Nam and urban race riots did for Cimino and Eastwood: it’s the background knowledge which the director shares with the audience and doesn’t need to spell out in detail. And the anonymity of the desert landscape which is the film’s setting might as well be Iraqi as Texan. Nothing is resolved at the end of NCFOM as Bardem-sporting the worst haircut in film history-stumbles out of frame after another less than sporting contest between his latest victim and the psycho’s sawn-off shotgun. All the killing - it seems - will just go on. Texans will be annoyed by this view of their county as a backward den of murder, stupidity, and illegality. And there is more than a touch of ‘Allo Allo’ in this film’s portrayal of the South. But the Coens’ canvas is even broader than the Texan landscape. It is the US itself at the disillusioned fag end of a presidency which - it so happens - was nonetheless made in Texas.