A man carrying a hunting rifle squints. He stands on the rim of a bowl-shaped depression, his mustache dripping with sweat. Heat rises from sparse desert scrub, from the splay of dust-splattered pickup trucks belching bloodied flesh.
His boots barely sink into ground as he gingerly makes his way down the canyon side; there is no water, no comfort, nothing to absorb the fury of maggot and sun.
Las Vegas residents held their breath Wednesday night as Llewelyn Moss, played by Josh Brolin, hit boot against rock in the New Mexican premiere of “No Country for Old Men.”
Adapted by Ethan and Joel Coen from the novel of the same name, the film closely follows Cormac McCarthy’s meditation on violence scene by scene with a judicious sprinkle of the directors’ trademark black wit. Tommy Lee Jones is good Texas Sheriff Ed Tom Bell on an endless hunt for deadpan sociopath Anton Chigurh, played with understated intensity by Javier Bardem, but the real star of the film is Las Vegas, whose historic buildings, tree-lined plaza, and residents whisk the viewer to small-town Texas 30 years ago.
Twin spotlights bled into the crisp night air as hundreds of aspiring moviegoers descended on Douglas Avenue. Lines formed on both sides of the Serf Theatre. Trinity Chenard drove from Denver to attend the premiere. She wrapped her soft pink scarf tightly around her head and neck to repel the quickly dropping temperature.
“I can’t wait to see this,” Chenard said. “I have been a Coen brothers fanatic since ‘Blood Simple.’ I’m glad they’re going back to their roots. I don’t know much about Las Vegas, so I spent an hour driving around town this afternoon, so I could recognize the scenes in the film.”
Chenard didn’t hold a ticket, but she was one of the few lucky hopefuls to find an empty seat inside the mural-lined room. The Serf quickly filled to capacity, and the disappointed and cold ticketless were told they could attend a special second screening the following night.
Local filmmaker Marine Dominguez took the stage of the Serf, microphone in hand, and thanked a long list of community services and businesses, politicians, and volunteers for making “No Country for Old Men” and the evening’s premiere a success.
“We have folks here from all over,” Dominguez informed the crowd. “We have people who participated in the filmmaking process both locally and in Los Angeles. We even have someone here from the New York Times.” The crowd erupted in cheers at the mention of each name and city.
Betsy Rogers, a photographer and writer who lives in both Santa Fe and New York, stood in her aisle and snapped pictures with an elaborate camera.
“I’ve been fascinated with Las Vegas for many years,” Rogers said. “I’ve been working on a photo journal essay for quite some time. I’ve gotten to know some of the families who have called Las Vegas home for 12 generations. This is a big moment for the city.”
The lights dimmed, and a nervous hush fell over the theater. Giggles and small cheers broke the tension when local residents and landmarks filled the screen. The biggest whoops were reserved for the Mexico border crossing and a night-time pan down Douglas Avenue. The Serf, marquee lit against the muted blues, blacks and grays that give the film its signature desolate look, made viewers feel as if they were inside the scene itself, a film within a film.
The Coens stole the darkness from Las Vegas, captured its most forgotten spaces, its bleakest tones, cobbled them together to create a border town on the edge of death, a place tired, drugged, achingly sincere in its place on the edge of the desert. Though the town plays the character of West Texas poverty, the homes and businesses that fly by still hold incredible charm, still retain some warmth the Coens couldn’t hide.
The Plaza Hotel — called the Eagle’s Pass in the film — hosts a chase scene. Moss waits on the edge of his rented bed, shotgun in hand, a valise filled with cash in the other. He figures out how Chigurh tracked him, knows that this hotel marks life or death. The Coens deftly capture the tension of justice. The stairs creak with deliberation. Moss watches the hallway darken as the killer approaches. The film is bleak, frightening, tightrope taut, brilliant.
Viewers murmured as they filed out the theater. The film punches you in the gut, leaves you watching over your shoulder, aware. Las Vegas resident Zane Burden, 12, shook his head as he described his most haunting scene, a car accident.
“It was right in front of my house. I’ll never look at my street the same way again.”