A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

 

Rank: # 2

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN jjjj

2007, R, 123 mins.

 

Sheriff Bell: Tommy Lee Jones / Llewelyn Moss: Josh Brolin / Anton Chigurh: Javier Bardem / Carson Wells: Woody Harrelson / Carla Jean Moss: Kelly Macdonald / Loretta Bell: Tess Harper / Man: Stephen Root

Written and directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen /  Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy

Sometimes, there are films that I have watched that were so unanimously wretched that I could not wait to leave the theatre. 

Then along comes NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN that elicits the complete opposite reaction.

Joel and Ethan Coenís adaptation of the 2005 novel by legendary author Cormac McCarthy is a masterful culmination of everything that the brothers have brought to the table since their auspicious and stunning debut in 1984 with BLOOD SIMPLE.  Watching that film, and following their careers forward, the Coens have revealed themselves to be the kings of subversive genre sandwiching.  Combining evocative homages to classic genres (in COUNTRYíS case, the Western and the Thriller), with a fiendishly clever plot, simply drawn and authoritative characters, a dark and twisted sense of humor, and - most crucially - a command of mood and atmosphere, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is perhaps their most flawless film effort to date.

It can be easily said that the two peaked in 1996 with their multiple Oscar nominated FARGO, which I also proudly placed on my list of the TEN BEST FILMS OF THE 1990's. That film achieved the astounding in the way it managed to find comedy amidst the most depraved and macabre of images.  FARGO had the Coenís esoteric fingerprints all over it and, at the time, I felt that it would be difficult for them to top it.  I think that this notion is what dictated the last decade of their films, which - for the most part - were concerned with making light, screwball farces.  Films like THE BIG LEBOWSKI, O BROTHER, WHERE AR THOU?, INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, and THE LADYKILLERS were pleasant enough diversions, but they were a far cry away from the greatness that BLOOD SIMPLE and FARGO achieved.

Itís now clear that the wait was worth it, because NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is a glorious return to old form for the eclectic filmmakers: The film is a bleak, desolate, and epic western-thriller that is as creepy, grimy, atmospheric, and tense as anything that they have ever made. The film almost ups the ante from FARGO in the way it digs even deeper for dark laughs (this film is pure Coens in the way it is consistently a laugh riot at the most morose of moments), but the one thing that stayed with me long after I left the theatre is what a supreme vise-like grip the brothers have over the audience in terms of generating Hitchcockian tension and intrigue.  NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is an unqualified masterpiece at generating dread and anxiety.  Itís one of those rare films where its nail-biting tension and intrigue make you (a) want to look away from the screen and (b) yearn for scenes to linger on ever further.  The film has a haunting allure and vigor that is rarely been duplicated.

On top of that, the film offers up a villain that deserves to be placed on a very short list with Hannibal Lector and the Hal-9000 computer of the cinemaís most chilling and eerie of protagonists.  In this case its Anton Chigurh (rhymes with sugar), and he is certainly 2007's most memorable creation.  He is played in a Oscar nomination-worthy performance by Javier Bardem as a ruthless and sadistic killer that is scary not by what he does, but what he does not do.  Bardem plays this creature with such an economy of emotions and body language.  Physically, his appearance inspires chuckles: he has a foppishly long and mangy mane of hair and looks like misplaced hippy, but underneath that silly facade lurks a stone cold and malicious devil.  He is a man of singular passion and motivation: to kill.  He reveals this with his icy, emotionless gaze, his focused and low key vocalizations, and his genuine lack of mercy.  Even his preferred method of execution is as inspired as it is insane: He walks around with a tank of compressed air connected to a cattle shotgun, which is useful for breaking into homes and to make people die instantly.  Cries of mercy are  never heard by him.  In his mind, that amount of inconvenience is reason enough to kill you.

Amazingly, heís is but one part of this filmís larger tapestry and is one third of the filmís three strand structure.  The other third concerns Llewelyn Moss (Joss Brolin, making a serious claim to be breakout star of 2007, and hot off of his great supporting performance in AMERICAN GANGSTER) who is a destitute bit of white trash who lives with his loving wife, Carla Jean (Karla Macdonald) in a trailer on the plains of Texas.  One day while on a hunting expedition he comes across a dreadful scene: a failed drug deal gone despicably wrong in the middle of the desert that has left everyone and everything dead (even the dogs have been murdered).  He finds the drugs and, most importantly, finds the money - all $2 million of it.

Like a classic Hitchcockian anti-hero, Moss makes no effort to return the money to the police, but tries to keep it for himself (much as Janet Leigh did in PSYCHO). What he does not immediately realize is that Chigurh was one of the original possessors of the drugs and money and since he is a sadistically unremorseful and cold-blooded hunter, he will stop at absolutely nothing to get it back.  Chigurh does hit some roadblocks, and is captured by the cops early on in the film, but he manages to escape by using his handcuffs as a murder weapon the deputy on guard.

The slain deputy worked for Sheriff Bell (played by Tommy Lee Jones, with pitch perfect delivery and enunciation), who himself is nearing retirement.  Bell is as world weary as they come, and has a lot of difficulty trying to find motivation for the psychopathic Chigurh.  Nevertheless, he tirelessly attempts to stop his seemingly never-ending bloodbath.  He is a tired and beleaguered old man, but he uses his spunk and lean wits to carry him forward.  Rounding off the story threads is that of a gutsy and smug bounty hunter named Carson Wells (in a brief, but solid performance by Woody Harrelson) who is hired by a man (Stephen Root) to track down the drug money.  Harrelson has the filmís best line.  When his boss asks him how dangerous Chigurh is, he dryly responds, "Compared to what...the bubonic plague?"

That, of course, is only a snippet of that quintessential Coenesque dialogue, and they have always been geniuses at making characters speak their minds with a sparseness and frank plainness.  Most of their films have a recipe of aseptic wit, exaggerated dialects, and irony, and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN may be their strongest screenplay for how it strips away the excess baggage from scenes and brings them down to their essence.  One moment in the film is expertly crafted and impeccably written, where Chigurh tries to rationalize with a lowly gas station clerk why picking a side on a coin toss has far weighty consequences that it appears to.  Chigurh knows that he uses the coin toss as a way to rationalize his kills (if the victim picks right, then they will walk away alive), but the key here is that the clerk does not know that at first.  There is more underlining pathos, tension, and terror to this scene than a thousand action scenes in any Michael Bay film.

Of course, the Coens are students of Hitchcock, who once famously commented on the difference between action and tension: To paraphrase, "action" is seeing two men enter a room and then it explodes, whereas "tension" is when the audience realizes that there is a bomb in the room that's about to go off and then two men enter.  There are individual scenes in NO COUNTRY that foster an unrelenting level of tension better than any recent film.  Various moments that involve a cat and mouse chase between Chigurh and Moss are brilliant in realization, using dark and foreboding lighting, camera work, and silence so perfectly.  Too many modern films use action, spectacle, and bombastic music to the point of overkill.  The Coens, contrastingly, know how using little or no sound drums up a sceneís anxiety and tension level.  One prolonged chase, that involves the two in a dark hotel, and then out on to the streets, and then into cars, is this yearís best sustained action sequence.

The film has other roots in Hitchcock in its character dynamics.  NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN constantly reminded me of PSYCHO, where viewers were constantly isolated from the characters.  The personas in the Coen's film elicit a similar responses for how they managed to draw us in and never give us a clear cut impression as to whom we should be rooting for or not.  This only heightens the filmís sorrowful moral ambiguity and sense of...senselessness.  This is not a film where characters methodically explain their motivations: they simply act without provocation.  Because of this, the film is soaked in nihilism, which only reinforces why Sheriff Bell experiences so much hopelessness throughout the film.

Like the best of the Coen, NO COUNTRY blurs genres, and the two most clearly on display are the western and the thriller, with sprinkles of film noir thrown in for good measure.  In many of their past films (FARGO being no exception) the landscape and terrain of the film because a character.  The Coens create  panoramic vistas of the Texas frontier that, at first, looks right out of a Sergio Leone western and just before we get too comfortable, they wisely change gears stylistically.  This has the benefit of keeping viewer on their toes, not knowing what to expect next.  Beyond the story and characters, NO COUNTRY is a beautiful looking film.

The film also offers up twists, turns, and unforeseen tangent shifts, especially in the final minutes.  This is a film that exists to tease viewers, making them think that its going one place and while never actually heading there.  Consider the framing device of the film: It opens with Jonesí voice over narration, where his character fondly remembers the good old days where sheriffs never wore guns, but now in the modern age they are forced to deal with monsters (he regretfully recalls one incident where he saw a teen off to the electric chair for killing a girl just because he wanted to see what it was like).  The film concludes with the same characterís further musings.  NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN ends without any fanfare or real sense of closure.  Itís abrupt, maybe too much for lay film goers, but for the world contained in the film, an unsettled end is the right choice for an unsettled story.  There is no right or wrong in the film, nor is their reasoning or a sense of justice being served.  A conclusion that was not bleak and abrupt would have been all wrong.

Considering the heights the Coens reached with FARGO ten-plus years ago, not to mention the more sleight and whimsical films they have made since, I was beginning to think that they would have no other tricks up their sleeves.  NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN reveals that the Coens have never lost a step, and as a harshly conceived character study that is brimming with dark laughs, haunting suspense, and - yes - the best villain in years, this is the kind of viewing experience that you wish would never end.  Only the Coens are capable of making razor sharp transitions from horror to thriller to comedy to western all in one swoop, and there efforts here result in a great American classic; accolades previously given to them for FARGO, and once again - with even greater affection and admiration -  here.

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