A decade ago acclaimed filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen released their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s critically lauded novel No Country For Old Men, a 1980s set neo-Western battleground for American masculinity and morality on the Tex-Mex borderlands.
The Coen Brothers’ adaptation (their second at the time, after translating Homer’s Iliad into O Brother, Where Art Thou?) is an undeniable and lasting masterpiece that amassed mountains of critical praise, including Oscars for Best Picture, director, adapted screenplay and supporting actor. It’s beautifully rendered, in large part to Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography. The script is impeccably crafted - taking the five act shape of a Shakespearian play. And perhaps most importantly it features flawless, career defining performances from Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem.
Bardem’s performance as psychopathic assassin Anton Chigurh is chilling. A portrait of this beastly character now permanently graces the blade of my left forearm. Why the hell would a person get this man tattooed on their body? A fair question. I decided as a fan of movies and tattoos, I’d begin the lengthy process of getting a sleeve of characters from my favourite films.
The short-list of films were Heat, Apocalypse Now and No Country For Old Men. Heat continues to be a challenge because there are so many characters and moments to love. The first piece was Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) from Apocalypse Now. And in January 2016, I had the portrait of Chigurh/Bardem, featuring the blood soaked silhouette of protagonist Llewellyn Moss/Brolin) tattooed on my left forearm.
I decided as a fan of movies and tattoos, I’d begin the lengthy process of getting a sleeve of characters from my favourite films.
Why Chigurh? Why not the square jawed and stoic face of Brolin’s Moss? He’s a tragic Vietnam warrior, for vastly different reasons than Willard (Sheen), but there’s a strange sinew that connects these impressions of American masculinity as a result of Vietnam. Why not the wonderfully wise, lined face of Jones’ Ed Tom Bell? Jones is the voice of reason, the voice of introspection and the bringer of comfort. We are, after all, custodians of our world and fiercely nurture the light we bring to an increasingly dark world. Damn, when I put it that way I might have made a mistake (joking).
Chigurh makes an imprint on your psyche. He’s affronted by time, by decency and cordiality. There’s a strange veneer over the world, where we live around an overwhelming majority of people who want to exist in civilisation. It’s evident even in the opening moments introducing the character. He’s led into a police station and the clean cut, sandy haired deputy casually contacts his superior on the telephone to ask for assistance. Out of focus behind him is the imposing figure in black untangling his shackles and stalking behind him. His attack comes on like a swarm. The deputy is torn from his chair and careening into Chigurh’s death grip. While the deputy writhes, Chigurh’s face mutates into a perverse madness. It’s a look with the intensity of a predator and the fever of pleasure. Their leather boots strike the linoleum flooring in the struggle that resembles an octopuses ink; Chigurh is the mollusc and the deputy is bait.
I am related to a professional prize fighter. Growing up, violence wasn’t the last resort, as perhaps it should be; it was as natural a trade to apply as plumbing. There’s a stark contrast between that seemingly natural workmen-like violence and the bubble wrapped ‘normal’ day to day experience. Corporate life is filled with caged individuals who use codes of conduct as the lines that they’re allowed to colour inside. Daily life in Sydney consists of being aggressively cut off in traffic and or being barged through a morning train door by people before you have time to alight.
Ed Tom Bell (Jones) laments in the film the loss of decency typified by the lack of reason in the killing he’s observing and cleaning up. Chigurh is not a moral villain; he sees the populace as livestock, which is best demonstrated by the fact that his weapon of choice is an air gun used on cattle. Chigurh doesn't merely punish those who would dare inconvenience his deranged pursuits with violence; he takes time to find offence with one’s very nature to live a banal life.
Chigurh is the reminder of the most extreme outlier, about the thinnest façade of civility and polishing our simian impulses. He exhibits the cold ferocity of the shark in Jaws; Chigurh though is sentient. He’s a force as certain as gravity. No matter what Moss, or the factions of Cartel money men do to hinder his pursuit, Chigurh is coming. He’s a character that makes the hairs prickle on your neck. He also sports a bob that would feel more at home on Courtney Cox’s Monica in friends. Chigurh in practice and appearance is a direct challenge to the American masculine ideal.
American cinema of the 1970s in America wasn’t ready to directly contend with or confront a fog of existential crises that continues to plague their psyche. In the 1980s, coinciding with Ronald Reagan’s presidency - the setting of No Country For Old Men - mainstream cinema began to change the narrative of Vietnam. It’s the difference between the psychological torment and melancholia in First Blood, and the hard bodied Vietnam revenge and rescue nonsense of First Blood Part II. Film theorist Susan Jeffords observed and studied the phenomena and coined the phrase - the ‘remasculinisation’ of America. McCarthy and the Coen Brothers are shifting the focus from an external real and imagined space, to more disturbing and confronting fringes of their own country.
Sometimes villains teach us more about ourselves than our heroes.
Brolin’s Llewellyn Moss, a veteran, tall square-jawed and classically handsome, illuminates the Vietnam veteran experience with a frank candour. Woody Harrelson’s Carson Wells is the slimy and sensual fluid mercenary, the ultimate capitalist. Tommy Lee Jones is the quintessential Texas law man, a keeper of the peace. Each of these characters, particularly Moss and Bell, convey revisionist archetypes. Moss is a Vietnam War veteran through the compassionate eyes of post 9/11. Bell is the ageing law man whose vintage has made him more compassionate and far less prone to acts of reflective violence. Even Wells’ mercenary, with his sultry cadence, seems more likely to expertly negotiate with a target rather than kill them.
Chigurh overwhelms these archetypes. Wells cannot fathom that a man whose profession is bounty hunter, would refuse to negotiate. Moss’ military experience fighting a guerrilla war in the diabolically dense terrain of Vietnam gave him the muscle memory to navigate the wraith like presence of Chigurh. However he cannot foresee that his connections to the world will leave a trail that will lead to his demise. Bell has to contend with the realisation that he’s honed a level of intuition and deduction that will lead him into the jaws of this beast.
Chigurh shares impulses, feelings and instincts of all three men in some way or another. There are echoes of actions like choosing roots in motels. There are echoes of moments of reflection, as each of the men pause on Moss’ couch. Wells and Chigurh share the thrill of the chase and the pleasure of the trap being sprung. Moss and Chigurh share craft and aptitude to anticipate each other’s moves. Chigurh has no connections to the world that can be leveraged. Bell and Chigurh share a code and a courtesy. There’s almost a virtual nod to one another in the final thrilling tease of confrontation. While you’re waiting for some kind of justice in this squall of empty death, there’s a deep fear that Bell will not survive an encounter. Bell’s relief that he’s one step behind (or so he thinks) is shared with us watching.
There’s a weird reaction in the recognition of people viewing Bardem’s face on my arm. For some it’s instant, a congratulatory “Yes,” or “that’s so awesome,” and sometimes “I love that movie.” For others it’s “who is that?” The short answer is, “I’m building a sleeve of my favourite movie characters and this is one of them.” Chirgurh is the bogeyman who would let your life ride on the toss of a coin to try and wake you up from drone like drudgery. Sometimes villains teach us more about ourselves than our heroes.
Watch 'No Country For Old Men'
Sunday 11 April, 2:15am on SBS / NOTE: No catch-up at SBS On Demand
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Kelly MacDonald, Woody Harrelson