Friday, November 09, 2007

"No Country for Old Men" -- * * * *

"This country's hard on people."

In the interest of full disclosure, I think the Coen Brothers are easily the hands-down best filmmakers working, and have been for at least 15 years. I think they're complete masters of their craft, and even their worst movie (2004's "The Ladykillers") is eminently rewatchable and great in its own imperfect way. So, while it's no real surprise to those who know me that I all-out loved their latest, "No Country for Old Men," it's worth noting that it's, at least, one of their 3 or 4 best films (many have already proclaimed it's THE best).

Based on Cormac McCarthy's tremendous novel and set in 1980, "No Country" stays almost insanely faithful to a writer whose works have long been declared unfilmable. Needless to say, the Coens have disproven that statement to such a great extent that another McCarthy adaptation has already been greenlit; his most recent novel, "The Road," has been optioned and cast with Guy Pearce. While it may not be a selling-point for his detractors, "No Country" represents the closest cinematic equivalent of reading a McCarthy novel, while also very much infused with the Coens' everpresent sense of style and wit.

"No Country" is no doubt a thriller, a pulse-pounding crime drama that never stops moving and features more acts of violence than any film in recent memory. However, above all (and as indicated by its title), it's a mournful, sorrowful look at the encroaching darkness that it sees as overwhelming the once-decent values and humanity of our country over the last couple decades. An elegy for societal goodness, if you will.

Opening with the narration of Texas Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), establishing our themes right from the get-go, we're soon introduced to our bogeyman, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) as he's arrested and promptly escapes after strangling his arrested officer with the very handcuffs shackling him. Soonafter, we cut to good-ole-boy Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), as he discovers a truck filled with dead bodies, one barely breathing one, as well as a satchel full of money and more heroin than one could shake a proverbial stick at. Understandably, Llewelyn's only real interest is in the money, and brings it home to his sweet, concerned wife (Scottish actress Kelly MacDonald, phenomenal in a very small part).

After a nagging guilt about the one guy left alive, Llewelyn returns to the scene of the discovery with a jug of water, only to find the survivor has now been killed, and he's glimpsed and tailed. Putting his wife on a bus for Odessa to her mother's, Llewelyn's now on the run from the Mexican perpetrators of the crime, and more importantly, Chigurh, the intended recipient of the money, who doesn't hesitate to kill anyone who crosses his path or get in his way. All the while, Sheriff Bell watches from a relatively safe distance, shaking his head at what society's come to and attempting track down Llewelyn to keep him safe from unstoppable force Chigurh.

As the closest thing we have to a protagonist, Brolin continues his comeback year of excellence with an extremely modulated performance that is likely to get the least attention of the three leads. Brolin portrays Moss as a relatively bright, resourceful guy who loves his wife but seems a little too cocksure for his own good. Considering his amount of screentime, he doesn't have a whole lot of dialogue, getting most the characters' emotions and motivations across in glances, sighs and movements.

Bardem's performance is, to put it simply, a fucking powerhouse. Also low on dialogue, Bardem imbues Chigurh with a ghostly quality, a combination of his seeming invincibility and inhumanly cold stares, smiles and manner of speaking; the fact that we don't even know his name until nearly an hour in certainly adds to the feeling. This is a character that is written to be scary, for sure, but Bardem makes him absolutely terrifying. You can completely sense the unease of everyone in the audience every time he's on screen, and the writing and the performance make him a significantly more intriguing character than a Hannibal Lecter or such. Chirgurh is no doubt a monster, but he's a "just" man in his own way, and has a sincere set of principles. As another character says, "He's a peculiar man."

Jones has the least screen time among the three (we don't actually see him till about the 25-minute mark), but its him the film is really about. Jones wonderfully plays him with a increasing sadness, like his role in "In the Valley of Elah," but with a far greater sense of gallows humor. The two performances are bound to draw comparison, and personally, I think I slightly prefer his work in "Elah" (easily the only thing about that film better than this one), but he still is fantastic as the moral center here. Sheriff Bell is the sort who skips certain occupational activities, like re-visiting crime scenes, not because he's lazy, but because he can't take what it does to his soul anymore. As a man who says things like "Once you quit hearing 'sir' and 'ma'am', the rest is soon to follow," this could've easily been a character that only curmudgeonly old men could relate to, but in the hands of Jones, we know exactly what he means and even I found myself agreeing with his Western wistfulness.

Serving as the Coens' third adaptation (after "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "The Ladykillers"), "No Country for Old Men" truly is one of their very best films, joining the company of "Fargo," "Miller's Crossing" and "Raising Arizona." Without sacrificing their trademarks, it serves as their most restrained piece of work, and potentially their most accessible and successful. The Coens have never been a sentimental pair; their films rarely, if ever, dwell on the emotional. But there's a profound sadness throughout "No Country" that really resonates without dwelling, and serves as an antidote for those who have applied the adjective 'cold' to them before. While there are some aspects you can recognize as distinctly Coen-esque-- they have a unique way of playing on the way certain areas utilize language-- they show little-to-no desire to overload on quirks that have permeated much of their past work (Stephen Root is the only member of their oft-utilized ensemble to show up here).

While many Coen films, and great films in general, have one or two scenes that serve as standouts to be cited by fans, "No Country" offers a bountiful plethora of them. I attempted to think of examples of great sequences produced here, and kept being reminded of another one, and another one, and then another that stuck out to me. From Chigurh's first attack on a motorist with his air-gun (typically utilized to blow the brains out of cows), to Moss's pursuit by a persistent, swimming dog, to a sequence in a hotel room that ratchets the suspense level up to an almost unbearable point, the Coens never let up. Even the quieter moments have a significant grace to them, paired with the impeccable writing, acting and framing of the shots. At the risk of hyperbole, literally every sequence is a jaw-dropper.

A big part of that is the look of the film, credited to the cinematography of Roger Deakins, having a Brolin-esque year of persistent greatness. His beautiful and shadowy cinematography here lends an austere gloriousness to every shot, joining his wonderful work on "In the Valley of Elah" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." On the aural end of the spectrum, Carter Burwell's score deserves credit for its restraint and the Coens' extremely, extremely minimal use of it. To be honest, it took a second viewing for me to even realize a score was used (it subtly and briefly underscores two quick, but pivotal, scenes); it's not until the closing credits when we hear a full, extended piece of music, and once we finally do, it's haunting. But the Coens' decision to leave the majority of the movie score (and music) free, with nary a car radio to punctuate the somber and tense content, makes the proceedings ten times more powerful (and suspenseful) than any score could have.

"No Country for Old Men" really can't be discussed completely without bringing up its ending. I won't talk about specifics, but more vague, non-specific spoilers. Still anyone who's seen the film or read the novel, read ahead, and those who haven't, feel free to return to me after this paragraph.


The Coens' faithfulness to their source material includes the novel's divisive ending. I've read it described as 'inconclusive' or 'open-ended,' but that branding is incorrect. It's very conclusive, concrete, it's just also extremely cynical, and denies the viewer a conventional "confrontational showdown between good and evil." Which, honestly, isn't just a daring, non-conformist conclusion to this story, it's literally, the only only way things could reasonably go down. An ending with a face-off between Chigurh and Bell would be a contradiction to every single thing that's come before it, and would completely destroy the entire point of the film. I'm, frankly, shocked at the level of certain people's surprise and disdain for this ending considering that everything you know about Jones' character and the film (including the title) would indicate that the film can end no other way. I rarely knock peoples' intelligence for their thoughts on a film-- I frequently have extended debate and discourse with others about out differing opinions-- but if you criticize this ending as "bad" or "unsatisfying," you're just stupid. You don't get the point of things, and you never will. Go check out "Fred Claus" across the hall.


Let's be clear about something. Regardless of awards, "No Country for Old Men" is an astonishing achievement in every respect. With a disquieting, unconventional emotional resonance paired with an unconscionably exciting and unpredictable story, the Coens have proven yet again why they're the best makers of movies working today. That said, it would be a shame if something this masterfully crafted were overlooked come Oscar time. Still, it doesn't matter. Despite the downbeat and violent state of things on screen, "No Country" will put any true fan of cinema in a terrific mood; I could conceivably watch it a dozen more times without getting my fill of the great things about it. And, unless a film comes along that blows the back of my head off, at this late point in the year, it's unquestionably the best film of 2007.

"No Country for Old Men" opens today in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington DC, Boston, Dallas, Chicago and Philadelphia. It expands to 130 theaters on November 16th, and 800 theaters nationwide on the 21st.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Best Picture, Best Director (Joel and Ethan Coen), Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem), Best Supporting Actress (Kelly MacDonald), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Score, Best Cinematography


Anonymous Anaysayer said...

Sorry, but yes, the ending was unsatisfying. I must be stupid. I guess I should have seen Fred Claus instead. But I flipped a coin, and "No Country" won out. Agree with you on much of the brilliance you noted. For the first hour and a half or so, I was loving this ride. But a film is not a novel and should not be faithful to the point of its own detriment. Those pretentious speechifying Bell scenes toward the end? They felt like a stake through the heart of this amazing, vibrant film. A dull stake, hammered slowly. Gabbing over week-old coffee with a recluse? Sitting at the breakfast table and telling your wife about your dream? I found myself on the edge of my seat... to get up and leave. This mostly great picture deserved a resolution with real resonance: perhaps not a cliche high-noon showdown between Bell and Chigurh; but also not the chatty pseudo-philosophic denouement we were given.

8:35 PM  
Blogger bruce said...

I understand Bell's resignation (in all of its contexts). In a postmodern world where everything is random, chaotic, and morally gray, how can you seek an ending that would "wrap things up?" It is certainly not a question of free will, maybe agency, but no one can choose or decide their fate in a country (or world rather) filled with disorder and randomness.

What do we have other than our own personal testimonies? Or our dreams and subjectivities? These are the only true narratives. To seek closure (through action), or a period (death), or a remarkable allegory or metaphor to end this film would be the worst thing one could do. I thought the ending was nothing more than anyone else could have done within their own volition.

I might not have seen a dead dog surrounded by decaying Mexican corpses yesterday, but I know at the end of the day, all I have are my experiences, memories, and dreams to ponder the next morning over breakfast.

6:31 PM  
Anonymous Michael F said...

Oscar Potential: Best Score?? Hmmm You's crazy.

"And, unless a film comes along that blows the back of my head off, at this late point in the year, it's unquestionably the best film of 2007."
--I Lovett


10:29 AM  

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