Tuesday, December 11, 2007

In Theaters: No Country For Old Men

Image from IMPAwards.com
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is a disquieting film, and meant as such. It’s hard to pigeonhole into any given genre, falling somewhere in the crime/thriller/suspense region with maybe a hint of Western, but it’s a particularly bleak patch of land. At the start of the film, I was distracted by many people in the audience murmuring to each other and one man clearing his throat loudly and other distractions (this is a quiet movie in many places so minor things are more noticeable.) However, I wasn’t a half hour in before all that melted away, because I was so completely absorbed by the story. The film is gripping in its simplicity, in its stark visual storytelling, and the unpredictability of its action.

The film, based on a Cormac McCarthy novel, takes place in some particularly blasted and remote part of Texas, and opens with the escape from arrest of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a man who seems as much serial killer as assassin, a sociopath who coldly kills people with an air gun used in slaughterhouses for killing cattle. Meanwhile, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a local man, comes across a massacre stemming from a foiled drug deal, and makes off with a suitcase containing approximately two million dollars. This puts Chigurh on his trail, as well as other men after the money. Meanwhile, Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), an old and increasingly jaded man, tries to put himself on Chigurh’s trail, but the killer is extremely good at covering his tracks.

It’s hard to know just whose story this is, if anyone’s. Llewelyn is the most protagonist-like of the characters, but Bell’s is the first voice we hear, and Chigurh is the first major character we see, and we follow these threads as they interweave with each other. Of course the money is the key; Llewelyn is in the position of having it but not being able to do much with it, but wants to hold on to it, and Chigurh is after it, and there’s no telling who he’s working for. After a point he seems to be pursuing Moss out of principle. He won’t let anyone escape.

For around the first two thirds, the film plays like a spartan, stripped down kind of thriller; it’s intensely quiet, with little dialogue and not much in the way of music either. (Carter Burwell did the score, but he obviously knew when to use silence.) However, the film makes an abrupt final turn that has divided audiences, violating the conventions of whatever the Hell genre this is supposed to fall into to begin with. It’s one of the darkest turns I’ve ever actually seen from the Coens, which is saying something. It’s unsatisfying in the sort term, dramatically speaking, because it denies immediate closure, but it stays with you, compelling you to think on what’s transpired and what it’s really all about; there are a number of possible interpretations and no one of them dominates. It may be an existentialist film, it may be a nihilistic one, it may be something else entirely.

The violence of the film is brutal, realistic, but also very creative, and it really helps that a lot of attention is paid to the gritty details. Obviously McCarthy did a lot of the work there, but there are so many smart touches and weird devices that it must have taken a considerable effort to make it all work visually. We’re dealing with mostly smart characters, albeit ones prone to lapses of judgment; Llewelyn seems to take the money without thinking of the danger that has to be attendant to it, but once the shooting starts he proves very resourceful. It’s just that Chigurh seems to think of everything.

There’s some great acting in all this as well, from Bardem and Brolin and Jones and a number of supporting players. This is more naturalistic than most of the Coens’ films, but there’s still their characteristic love of dialogue and the way people talk outside of standard exposition and banter. Again, much of this is from the source (I’ve been told, at the very least, that this is a fairly faithful adaptation), but it’s carried over and presented with a lot of care.

There is simply not a lot I have to say about this film other than that it is very good. I don’t want to spoil too much, and I think I have already, but mostly what I remember is a stark and somewhat terrifying beauty. The title has many meanings, applying to characters and events and even literally to the land itself, a desolate part of the world that everyone wants to get away from as quickly as they can. The Coen Bros. are at the top of their game here, and I have a feeling this film is going to be talked about for a good long time.

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

Grade: A

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