I wanted to see No Country again after its Oscar win, but first I decided to revisit the early Coen film that had the least impact on me, Miller's Crossing.
Set amidst of the gang wars of Prohibition, Miller's Crossing is, for me at least, probably the Coens' most impenetrable movie, but that may simply be the result of Gabriel Byrne's Irish brogue combined with the defiantly un-hip '20s slang that every character recites (They could have called this Yeggs: The Movie). And watching the Oscars reminds me that the Coens, like so many of their characters, have severely low-affect personalities, from the laconic H.I. McDunnough of Raising Arizona to the stubborn Llewelyn Moss. It's great when it works, but for me, Byrne's Tom Reagan just isn't interesting or conflicted enough as a character to carry me through the movie, and his arc seems to be muddled. In the film's plot, which is borrowed heavily from Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, Reagan functions as the go-between, the guy who plays both sides against each other, and if his arc is to show him becoming disillusioned by his own actions within the world he lives in, it's not clear to me why a career gangster would be so affected by the specific events of this movie, to turn away from his father figure (Albert Finney) and the woman he may or may not love (Marcia Gay Harden) by the end of the film. It's a handsome movie and well-shot and performed, but it doesn't resonate with me as much as Raising Arizona or Fargo.
On the other hand, the places where Miller's Crossing falls short serve to highlight where No Country for Old Men excels. Where Miller's is stifled by its own production design and old-movie homages (the same factors that basically killed The Ladykillers), No Country is fresh, existing in a fully-realized 'real' world; for the first time in a long time, the Coens are interested in their characters as real people and not as movie archetypes.
The exception to this rule is Anton Chigurh, who's been described as an allegorical 'grim reaper' in plenty of reviews, but the truth is that he's just a mirror image of Tommy Lee Jones' Ed Tom Bell (literalized in two scenes), with Josh Brolin's Llewelyn Moss an in-between version of both men, a silent man of the country corrupted by the intrusion of a crapload of money into believing that he can outwit 'the ultimate badass', and the progress of the movie is the temptation and fall of Moss. It's not that Moss fails in his face-off against Chigurh, it's that he never had a chance in Chigurh's world. At the end of the movie, it's Carla Jean's moral victory that she chooses not to play Chigurh's coin-toss game. For the bulk of the movie, it's Moss's failure that he keeps playing over and over again, like an addicted gambler. Of course, the twist of the movie's ending is that even though Chigurh has beaten all of his human adversaries, the house still holds the ultimate trump card - Chigurh can outsmart a Texas welder, but he can't beat the random whims of the universe.
I recognize that this is somewhat rambling - I'll pick it up again soon.