“The thing that won’t die, in the nightmare that won’t end.” The tagline was created for 1984’s Terminator, the career-making hit for Arnold Schwartzenegger and writer-director James Cameron — but it also describes No Country for Old Men, the new effort from the Coen brothers. Both films incorporate identical plot-driving elements: a soulless, unstoppable villain; a hero/heroine on the run; and a completely ineffectual lawman named Ed who does nothing to stem the violence. The difference is, whereas Lt. Ed Traxler (Paul Winfield) gets blown away expeditiously to make way for more action in The Terminator, No Country lingers poignantly on the inability of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) to come to terms with a world that can produce such evil.
Yeah, yeah. The world is getting nastier, and back in the day, sheriffs like Bell didn’t even need to carry a sidearm — and he probably had to walk 10 miles to get to school when he was a kid, too. You might think the world-weary musings of an aging, overmatched cop could become grating (particularly when a killer is on the loose). But Bell’s dialogue here is so realistic and wise, and Jones inhabits the role so effortlessly, that his running commentary — his wonderment — is like a play-by-play announcer who’s better than the game he’s calling. Not that the game isn’t compelling. Our hero, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), has found a case containing $2 million in drug money — and Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is the Terminator with a pageboy haircut determined to get that money back. Chigurh’s relentless pursuit of Moss, and shocking, casual violence along the way, will set you on edge in scene after scene. That’s what happens when a vacant-eyed villain has no moral limits, and there is no one equipped to stop him.
Switch out Sarah Connor for the case of cash, and the plot is similar here. Sarah, you may recall, is the woman the Terminator, a cyborg assassin played by Schwartzenegger, is sent back in time to kill. Here too, the bodies pile up. Like Chigurh, the Terminator kills people by the dozen, with or without reason, including unlucky cops whose vehicles are driven away as souvenirs. Like Chigurh, the Terminator is badly wounded and responds identically: by going back to his cheap motel room to methodically repair the damage himself, showing no hint of emotion. The Terminator did it first; but did it do it better?
Obviously, No Country and The Terminator have their differences; I don’t recall The Terminator receiving much Oscar buzz in 1984, for example. Technically, No Country is nothing short of brilliant — across the board. I don’t usually notice a film’s sound editing, but No Country’s is as pitch perfect as the dialogue. Both films are well-made, although The Terminator, created two decades ago on a relatively low budget, shows its age (like most sci-fi films not re-edited by George Lucas do).
Ultimately, the difference is Tommy Lee Jones and the words he’s been given to speak. They take what might have been merely a good genre flick and elevate it to another level, causing you not just to enjoy the film’s action, but to reflect on its meaning for days afterward. As Sheriff Bell might remind us, murderous robots can be a little scary — but human beings who behave like murderous robots are truly disturbing. Sorry, Ah-nold; you are terminated. The winner is No Country for Old Men.