Saturday, November 17, 2007

No Country For Old Men (****)

Written for the screen and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen


The setting for the new Coen Bros. movie, No Country For Old Men, is the vast empty space that inhabits the lonely areas within Texas. The movie opens on numerous shots of emptiness, with the voice of Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) speaking over the images. He explains the story of a 15-year old he sentenced to death after he killed a 14-year old girl. "The newspapers called it a 'crime of passion'," Bell explains, "But he told me, 'There ain't nothing passionate about it. Way I see it, I've been fixin' on killin' as long as I can remember. I'm goin' to Hell, reckon I'll be there in about 15 minutes'."

Thus, the stage is set for the most spectacular film I've seen so far this year. A film so tense and brutal, yet made with such skill, that it will stick with you long after you leave the theater. Based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy, the Coens have made a masterpiece centering on the disintegrating morality of humanity, and absolute evil.

The absolute evil is epitomized by the character of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Chigurh is a killing machine (with emphasis on machine) with less mercy than the Terminator. He doesn't seem to be motivated by what motivates the other characters in the film: money, drugs, sex; he's just motivated by the chance to execute extreme violence. His calculated menace makes one of the most sadistic movie villains that I have seen in years. He walks hard, with his shoulders broad, continuously wearing the same combination of dark clothes and coat, and sporting a cutesy bob hairdo. These details combine to make him look like a cross between Charles Manson and John Lennon on the cover of "Rubber Soul". His weapon of choice: a cattle stun gun.

We also meet Llwelyn Moss (a tremendous Josh Brolin), a welder who lives in a trailer with his sweet, child-like wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald). The plot of the film begins to unfold when Moss goes hunting in the vast desert, and stumbles across a drug deal gone terribly wrong. Many people have been killed (and a dog as well), and Moss finds an incredible amount of Heroin, and about $2 million in cash in a bag--he takes no time in taking the money for himself. He sees one Mexican man who is still alive (barely) who begs endlessly for water. When Llwelyn decides to go back to get this man water, it ends up being the biggest mistake of his life.

When he's nearly killed by some Mexican drug dealers, Moss hits the road. Anton is on his trail, following him closely from motel to motel. We're not sure who puts Anton up to this trek (everyone he talks to is either killed, or threatened with the idea of being killed), but he seems to be motivated by principles. It's not Moss' money, so he shouldn't have it, and he will die for this theft.

Trailing all the destruction is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Jones), who worries over the state of the world. He seems to get to the scene of every crime two minutes too late. He's never able to prevent crime; but he's always there to see the aftermath. He longs for the days when young people still said "ma'am" and "sir", and wonders if he's even cut out for his role in law-enforcement the way his father and grandfather were. He looks at the looming evil that has swept his society, and ponders if its worth fighting for. All the while, he is trying to find Moss and Chigurh before more blood is shed.

I will walk away from explaining elements of the plot for now, and move onto my praise for this tremendous film. It is bold, it takes it's time, and it is not afraid to use silence. Silence may be the best performer in this film. It hovers over essentially every scene, like a death cloud predicting doom for everyone--particularly those who come in contact with Chigurh. It is the Coen Bros. most exhilarating film since Fargo. It is violent, brooding, but sparkling with humor familiar in Coen films.

The movie attempts to exemplify the morality of a world filled with evil. In fact, it questions whether there is any morality to begin with, and offers nothing in the way of life-affirming themes. The film takes it's time with it's story. It could have easily been 30-40 minutes shorter, but then the overall effect would be lost. It takes the personality of it's vast landscape, and with the cinematography of Roger Deakins (a frequent collaborator with the Coens) it may just be the "best looking" film the Coens ever made.

The engine that makes this film run is it's first-rate performances. Josh Brolin's turn as Llewlyn is a career-defining performance. Moss is simply not as smart and equipped as he wants to be, but Brolin allows you to believe in this man's money-hungry, life-threatening journey. Tommy Lee Jones' performance as the world-weary sheriff is another in a line of performances that Jones has participated in the last few years affirming his substantial career (this year's In The Valley of Elah may very well be the best of his career). Kelly MacDonald is tender and heartbreaking as Carla Jean, in a roll that makes you completely forget MacDonald's Scottish background. Carla Jean is the one, small star in this bleak film.

And then, of coarse, we have Javier Bardem. His performance as Chigurh will make your blood curd. He does not seem to be part of the human race. He kills people based on his own delusional moral code, but is very conscious to not get blood on his shiny boots. When he comes into contact with a bounty hunter hired to catch him, Carson Wells (a delightful Woody Harrelson), he knows what he has to do. He even has the decency to sit him down in his hotel room and explain to him why. When a man asks Wells how dangerous Chigurh actually is, Wells responds, "Compared to what? The Bubonic Plague?".

When the Coen Bros. released Fargo, they'd made a perfect film. A film made with such astonishing skill, it is the kind of movie that seems like a miracle. This kind of thing rarely happens twice with filmmakers, but with No Country For Old Men, the Coens have established themselves as iconic members of movie society. No Country is not a conventional film (do the Coens ever settle for convention?), and it is brave enough to be what it is: an uncompromising story of the rising evil that is encasing the world.

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