No Country for Old Men

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 01/03/08 11:43:04

"The Coens deliver one of their very best."
5 stars (Awesome)

The Coen Brothers have never made a movie like “No Country for Old Men.” Gone are their trademark character quirks, replaced with a cold, distant stare. Adapting the novel by Cormac McCarthy, they bury themselves in the author’s stark world and find themselves lost in a meditation on violence, evil, and fear.

Perhaps “lost” is the wrong word. The Coens - Joel and Ethan, sharing screenwriting and directing credit - are never “lost” here. They are always in full command. But they tell their tale from a few steps back, letting McCarthy’s dark examinations of this cruel world wash over them. Not once does “No Country” feel like a Coen Brothers picture, even in the scenes of casual conversation that might remind you of “Fargo.” The filmmakers are stretching their muscles, trying something new, and by tackling McCarthy, they become overwhelmed, and so do we. The Coens have studied the Evil That Men Do before, but here, in what could arguably be called the bleakest studio film in recent memory, they refuse to balance the grim with the playful. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel. It’s all tunnel, dark and eternal. Perhaps “lost” is the right word after all.

The story is simple: An innocent man comes across the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong, discovers a satchel containing two million dollars, and takes it; another man, far from innocent, hunts him down; a third man, a kindly sheriff, hopes to save the first man from the second.

The simplicity is deceiving. The Coens, working so closely from McCarthy’s novel that entire pages of dialogue are often duplicated on screen, effortlessly deliver a multilayered work that’s part thriller, part introspective drama, part character study, part rumination on the very notion of death itself.

Let’s begin with the first man, Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin). For him, this film is a deadly thriller, a chase picture with close-call getaways and cat-and-mouse outwittings. Llewelyn is a smart man, never naïve enough to think he can get away with the money without putting up a good run first. He sends his mousy wife (Kelly Macdonald) to her mother’s, then abandons their trailer and sets off across southern Texas, hiding out in cheap motels, always keeping an eye open for the trouble that’s bound to come his way.

In pure genre terms, “No Country” is as leisurely as a thriller can get while still providing suspense. Moss’ cross-state run moves slowly enough to ensure his plans are properly thought out and executed; setting the story in 1980, where one could easily disappear without cell phones and internet clogging your journey, lends the action a calmer pace. When the story introduces two new characters, a mysterious businessman (Stephen Root) and the bounty hunter (Woody Harrelson) he has hired, they, too, are in no hurry, yet they still provide a great deal of tension by adding to an ever-tightening grip around Moss.

For the second man, the enigmatic Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), “No Country” is a study of evil. Chigurh casually floats from murder to murder like Death itself. He is tired of the common man, those who beg for mercy and ask the ever-present “why?” He taunts them with his twisted philosophy, as if disgusted with the fact that everyday folk can’t comprehend the big picture, that they know they want to live but can never express why they should be spared.

Bardem, in a brilliant, restrained performance that is at once curiously compelling and overwhelmingly terrifying, makes Chigurh more than a man - he's a force. There is no reasoning with him. Even when one character, late in the film, refuses to play his games, the gambit fails; Chigurh has no ego to bruise, and declaring his arguments invalid will not stop him from his ultimate goal. All we can do is watch to see how different people deal with the very inescapable-ness of his existence. And even then, the movie informs us, that matters little - coward or brave soul, Chigurh will leave us the same way.

This fact is not lost on our third man, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), the sheriff. He is at the end of his days and is saddened to learn he has not entered his older years with newfound wisdom. What he has instead is newfound grief. Bell has seen too much death and has resigned himself to an understanding that evil cannot be defeated. Bell is the movie’s moral center, pausing to reflect on the horrors Chigurh leaves in his wake.

He is also the film’s best shot at humanity. An investigative wonder, his detective skills combined with a matter-of-fact attitude puts him in the neighborhood of Marge Gunderson. But where “Fargo” gave us charm and wit to heal the wounds of the gloomier corners of the story, “No Country” grants us little reprieve. Marge was cheery in the face of danger; Ed Tom Bell is reserved.

The Coens echo this tone by removing all music from their film. The visual mood of the vast desert landscapes and dusty small border towns is matched by long stretches of silence, punctuated only by everyday sounds. It’s a bold experiment that succeeds wonderfully; the silence not only draws us in more closely, but it allows the story’s sudden fits of violence to shock all the more.

All this languid dreariness may sound like too much to take, and yet “No Country” is endlessly involving. It’s a movie that compels you to lean in, get closer to the characters, take another step down that dark, endless tunnel. The Coens have given us a film so unlike anything they’ve made before, and in doing so, they’ve given us a work of complete, devastating brilliance.

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