No Country For Old Men

November, 2007, Drama

Directed by:Joel Coen and Ethan Coen]]

Starring:Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, and Kelly Macdonald

There are so many brilliant elements in this riveting adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s brutally violent novel it may sound like carping to express disappoint in the plot’s resolution, but fear not; this latest offering by the multi-talented Coen brothers (Ethan & Joel) immediately takes its place among the best films of the year. Country abounds with mesmerizing performances, visually arresting images and the kind of regionally perfect, ground-glass dialogue which injects the novelist’s pervasive aura of melancholy into the scorched landscapes and battered lives of those inhabiting the Texas/Mexico border a quarter century ago when drug running was a growth industry in the region.

The Coens have been baiting audiences ever since they burst on the scene with Blood Simple in 1984. That lean, violent thriller, with its brilliant cinematography, laconic dialogue and bleak view of humanity marked the beginning of a collaborative partnership which has resulted in everything from loopy comedies, (Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski) to dark thrillers like Miller’s Crossing. (Their alchemy also mixed humor with violence to create Fargo, a widely recognized master work.) Recently, they’ve stumbled; their last two films, (The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty) were, to put it redundantly, intolerable. But they’ve returned to form with this sprawling yet tightly constructed tale of Llewelyn Moss, (Josh Brolin) a quietly self-assured Vietnam vet who, while hunting antelope in the vast expanse of the West Texas plains, stumbles across fresh corpses in a drug-deal gone wrong. He ignores the dope but makes off with a suitcase full of buy-money, unaware that a tracking device has been sequestered in the stacks of fresh $100 dollar bills he’s carrying. 

Naturally, the parties behind both ends of this aborted transaction want both the dope and money back; having recovered the former on site, they employ Anton Chigurh, (Javier Bardem) a quietly terrifying psychotic hit man, to recover the cash. Anton’s bloodily pursuit of the dogged Llewelyn quickly comes to the attention of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, (Tommy Lee Jones) who wearily tracks both the pursuer and pursued through the low rent motels and saloons that populate the Tex-Mex border, in the process trying to get Moss’s wife Carla Jean to sell her husband on the idea of turning himself in. As the body count rises, it becomes increasingly apparent that Moss is in way over his head; the Coens hammer that point home with the kind of slight-of-hand plot-twist for which they’re famous. 

While Country’s action revolves principally around Moss’ flight and Chigurh’s pursuit, it’s Sheriff Ed Tom who provides the film’s gravitas; he embodies McCarthy’s morose take on the human condition in the twangy country ‘n western sermonettes he shares with family members and the good ‘ole boy deputies he oversees. More homespun philosopher than peace officer, Ed Tom ponders much and solves very little, but Tommy Lee Jones, looking even more world-weary than he did earlier this fall as a grieving father, (In the Valley of Elah) delivers a hauntingly baleful evaluation of what’s become of the values that built the Old West. The sheriff has seen the future, in his dreams and the unseeing eyes of Chigurh’s victims, and finds little solace in the world he’s been elected to serve. Duty and honor were the birthrights given him by his father and grandfather, both lawmen before him; they had the good fortune to live in a time of straightforward notions of civilized behavior. Ed Tom believes that humanity has slipped its moral hobbles and it frightens the hell out of him. (The sheriff’s final monologue hints at the apocalyptic theme of The Road, McCarthy’s latest novel.)  It’s hard to imagine any other actor capable of delivering a melancholy Texas redneck sheriff of such enduring appeal.

But the movie’s furious momentum belongs to its principal protagonists; as Moss, Brolin surpasses his work in two previous films this year, (In The Valley of Elah & American Gangster). Resourceful, gruff but endearing to his mousey wife and bracingly masculine, Brolin personifies just the kind of laconic, self-reliant character Sheriff Ed Tom would argue is essential to sustain the very best of the West’s legacy. But he’s outmaneuvered at every turn by the Chigruh’s mindless brutality which Bardem conveys with a soft vocal cadence, disquieting menace and an assortment of bizarre weapons. His character represents the absence of morality; the toss of a coin substitutes for divine judgment and brute force is justified simply by the capacity to exert it. Bardem employs facial expressions suggesting that murder is no more repugnant than spitting on the sidewalk; it’s a brilliantly disturbing performance, much at odds with the sensitive roles, (Before Night Falls, The Dancer Upstairs, The Sea Inside) for which this accomplished Spanish actor is noted.

No Country For Old Men suggests that traffic in illicit drugs has converted notions of human dignity and basic respect for others into a new society where the brutal manipulate the weak and Chigruh’s enigmatic exit near the film’s end suggests that such evil constitutes a communicable disease, not susceptible to eradication.

Country’s supporting cast is no less memorable than its leads; Kelly McDonald provides a charmingly ditzy Carla Jean, Deadwood’s Garret Dillahunt conjures up a deputy whose mouth is just a bit to fast for his brain and Barry Corbin manages the impossible, stealing his only scene, played opposite Tommy Lee Jones. Corbin, with nearly 150 screen performances to his credit in a career spanning more than three decades plays Ellis Bell, a weather-beaten, wheelchair-bound parental Methuselah who reminds Ed Tom that the family’s tradition doesn’t include giving up on the task at hand…  

Cinematographer Roger Deakins has worked on at least a half dozen Coen productions and he brings the same level of meticulous craftsmanship to this one; there’s a fearsome beauty to his landscapes juxtaposed with frightening intimacy in his claustrophobic motel rooms, each one fashioned with perfect attention to blue-collar detail by production designer Jess Gonchor, who brought the same level of visual credibility to Capote and The Devil Wears Prada.  

If anything detracts from this commendable list of accomplishments, it’s a tendency to push the envelope of moral ambiguity a bit too far in resolving the storyline; Chigurh’s brief appearance at the final abattoir confuses rather than clarifies and Ed Tom’s film-ending soliloquy, while hauntingly evocative of the film’s overall theme, fails to adequately address Chigurh’s comeuppance and borrows a bit too heavily from the Mexican hit Amores Peros, which also presented the notion of random events and their consequences as a pivotal plot device.

That caution aside, skip this one and you’ll miss one of the most visually exciting and stunningly acted movies of the decade. 

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