"...made with-consummate filmmaking skill and grace..."

A Character Study of Evil

(112307-original pub date/091522-reformat date) Until now, the films of Joel and Ethan Coen have been explorations of cinematic genres and sub-genres that were often as much about the quirks and stylistic touches of their respective narratives–the true-crime melodrama of “Fargo,” the road movie of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” the screwball romantic fluff of “Intolerable Cruelty,” the pointless “director’s cut” of “Blood Simple, The Director’s Cut” and the even-more-pointless remake of “The Ladykillers”–as they were about the stories that they were ostensibly telling. This is not a complaint by any means–at their worst (which pretty much remains “The Hudsucker Proxy”), they are still more inventive and entertaining than most current filmmakers working at the top of their game and when they are firing on all cylinders (such as their underrated gangster epic “Miller’s Crossing”), the results can be breathtaking–but it does mean that there is an unmistakable remove to their work that can be interpreted by some as a certain degree of chilliness, as though they were making films only from the head and not at all from the heart.

One of the biggest shocks of “No Country For Old Men,” their latest work, is the realization that this remove is nowhere to be found during its 121 minutes–instead of being a movie about a certain kind of movie, it is a simple and straightforward movie in which none of the elements seem to be contained within self-aware quotes. This is exceptionally strange when you realize that the film isn’t a self-created work like the majority of their previous films, but has been based on the 2003 novel by acclaimed author Cormac McCarthy. Despite being their first literary adaptation (or maybe because it is their first literary adaptation), they have left all their tricks and ironic jokerie behind and the resulting film feels deeper and more personally felt than anything they have done before. The result is an astonishing work of popular cinematic art that is not only one of the very best films of 2007 but is also one of the very best that the Coens’ have ever done–it is easily their finest work since “Fargo”.

Set in 1980, just at the time when the drug wars that had previously been contained south of the border were beginning to explode into heretofore unimaginable levels of violence in these parts, “No Country For Old Men” kicks into gear as amiable sad sack Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) goes out hunting one bright, shiny day on a bit of desolate West Texas panhandle. He isn’t very successful along those lines but he does come across something else–five 4x4's and a number of dead bodies left out in the middle of nowhere. When he goes down to investigate, he realizes that he has found the remains of a drug deal gone bad and while poking around, he discovers one badly wounded survivor, many pounds of heroin and $2 million neatly stacked in a travel bag. Ignoring both the wounded man’s pleas for water and, perhaps, the voice of common sense, Moss takes the money with him and squirrels it away underneath the trailer that he shares with loving wife Carla Jean (Kelly McDonald).

Moss does this not because he is a bad man or a greedy man–he is just an ordinary man who finds an opportunity for him and his wife to start a newer and better life literally at his feet and he decided to take it without thinking of the potential consequences. Hell, he even covers his tracks so well that even if there were potential consequences, there would be no plausible way to link him to the money anyway. However, Moss feels some pangs of conscience and later that night, he decides to return to the area where he found the bodies and money in order to help the one survivor. This is not a particularly smart decision for a man who has just made off with that much money to make–something that even he acknowledges–and it is this decision that more or less seals his fate. When he arrives at the scene, the survivor is gone but before he can leave, Moss is ambushed by a truckload of unseen gun-toting guys, not to mention one extremely tenacious dog, that chase him to the Rio Grande before he is able to make a getaway. Realizing that he is now in trouble, he convinces Carla Jean to go visit her mother while he gets out of town with the cash until things blow over.

In his haste to get away, however, Moss leaves his vehicle behind at the scene of the original crime and this sends two very different people on his trail. The first is Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), the low-key county sheriff who has become increasingly disenchanted with what he sees as a world gone increasingly wrong (“When you don’t hear ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ anymore, pretty much everything else goes”). Upon surveying the scene of the massacre, he realizes that Moss likely had nothing to do with what happened but he also realizes that the people who did will most likely be in pursuit of him as well and that they are people not to be trifled with. (“He’s seen the same things I’ve seen and they’ve certainly made an impression on me.”) He doesn’t know the half of it. It turns out that the people behind the deal have hired one Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) to retrieve the money. Chigurh is the kind of man who sets out to do a job and will not stop for anyone or anything until he is done.. After violently escaping from jail after getting picked up on a silly traffic violation, Chigurh begins to cut a bloody swath through the area in his pursuit of Moss and eliminates those who get in his way with a nasty compressed-air gun. Sometimes, just for fun, he will meet a complete stranger and have them call a coin that he flips in the air, not realizing just how much they are unwittingly laying on the line.

Based on the above description, devotees of the Coen Brothers oeuvre might be expecting “No Country For Old Men” to play as sort of a fusion between the neo-noir trappings of their electrifying 1985 debut film “Blood Simple” and their cheerfully goofy Southern-fried 1987 comedy “Raising Arizona.” Almost from the start, however, it becomes clear that the Coens are not interested in demonstrating how clever they can be with their idiosyncratic dialogue and elaborate stylistic flourishes. Like the terrain that most of the film takes place upon, the look and the feel is spare and unyielding and while there are laughs to be had, they are the kind of nervous ones that occasionally come up in an otherwise tense film in order to allow the audience to let off a little steam. This is something that they will need because once the unstoppable Chigurh sets off in pursuit of Moss, the Coens create and sustain a mood of almost unbearable tension that is occasionally punctuated by moments of genuinely shocking and startling violence. Although “No Country For Old Men” is by no means a horror film, there are scenes in it that are as nerve-wracking as any that you could name–one set-piece that takes place in and around a virtually deserted motel is a symphony of light, shadow, sound, movement and out-of-nowhere shocks that is so skillfully and tensely executed that it should stand as a template for horror film-makers in terms of both the consummate filmmaking virtuosity on display and its overpowering visceral impact.

The other aspect of the film that may remind viewers of a horror film like “Halloween” is that it offers us, in the form of Anton Chigurh, one of the most indelibly terrifying characters to ever grace the silver screen. Right from the start, when he manages to kill a prison guard and escape from jail despite being in handcuffs, we realize that he is a virtually unstoppable machine who knows what he wants–the two million dollars–and will quietly and methodically go to whatever violent lengths that he needs to in order to achieve that goal. And yet, and this is an aspect of his character that is perhaps even freakier than his way with his compressed air gun, he shares with Sheriff Bell, his unknown rival in the search for Moss, a certain courtliness and purity of purpose. He may be a monster but he is at least upfront about it and when he learns that the people who have hired him in the first place have hired a second man, the unwisely self-confident Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), he is quietly outraged that the people who brought him in now seem to have such little trust in him that they would actually dare to bring in another man to ensure that he doesn’t simply kill everyone and keep the money for himself. Of course, that is exactly what his ultimate plan appears to be, but they don’t know that for sure.

Because Chigurh is such an overwhelming force of monstrous nature without any visible signs of humanity or conscience, it would appear to be a difficult role to play but Javier Bardem slips into the part so completely and effortlessly that it is a little scary to see just how completely he has transformed himself simply through his performance. On the surface, he seems fairly bland and nondescript but there is always an uneasy feeling about him and when he lets the beast within suddenly rise to the surface, it is a frightening sight to behold. Early on, there is a messy strangulation scene and while it is a sequence that is filled with blood and pain, the most unsettling aspect is the look on his face as he dispatches yet another obstacle. In the past, Bardem has given some incredible performances in films like “Before Night Falls,” “Collateral” and “The Sea Inside” but his work here eclipses them to such a degree that I suspect that it will soon go down as one of the great screen performances of recent years. Certainly on a par with and indelible as Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter.

Although Bardem’s turn is likely to receive the lion’s share of the praise, it is by no means the only standout performance in the film by a long shot. As Moss, Josh Brolin has a role that is almost as difficult to portray as Bardem–for the vast majority of his scenes, his character is constantly on the run and isolated from the other cast members–but he pulls it off beautifully with an oddly compelling combination of cunning, determination and the kind of intelligence that suggests that he is simultaneously smart enough to understand how much trouble he has gotten himself into and dumb enough to believe that he can somehow reason his way out. Woody Harrelson is very entertaining in his few scenes as the brash bounty hunter who knows full well just how dangerous Chigurh is but makes the mistake of thinking that possessing this knowledge alone is the key to survival. In smaller roles, Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald (perhaps best known here for her roles in “Trainspotting” and “Gosford Park”) is virtually unrecognizable as Carla Jean, Garret Dillahunt plays Sheriff Bell’s deputy and gets off most of the funniest lines in the film (surveying a couple of well-dressed corpses at the massacre sight, he observes “These boys look managerial”) in a manner that makes them feel less like laugh lines and more like what his character might actually say in that situation and Gene Jones has one indelible moment as the gas station proprietor whose bland pleasantries towards Chigurh inspire a tense standoff between the two in which only one fully knows what exactly is at stake.

However, the other real keeper here is the performance from Tommy Lee Jones, an always-reliable performer who just seems to be getting better and better with age. Although he may not have the most screen time, his Sheriff Bell is essentially the laconic heart and soul of the film but the surprise is that he doesn’t approach the role in the brusque, no-nonsense manner that you might expect. Jones brings a vulnerability to the part that is surprising–instead of coming across as the determined type that Jones has played so well in the past, his Bell basically admits that he may be over his head in dealing with criminals whose savagery is beyond his comprehension–and after the main action has come to its conclusion, he has two final scenes, one with his former deputy (Barry Corbin) and the other with his understanding wife (Tess Harper), that are among the finest that he has ever played.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk in film circles about the majority of the serious-minded movies that have come out this season haven’t fared very well at the box office. While this is true, most of these analyses seem to conclude that people aren’t going to see things like “In the Valley of Elah” or “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” simply because they are dramatic films and not because they are, as it turns out, movies that aren’t very good in the first place. “No Country For Old Men” may be as dark, bloody and fatalistic as anything that you will see this season but it has been made with such consummate filmmaking skill and grace that even the most Pollyannaish of viewers are going to find themselves coming away from it deeply impressed with what the Coens have accomplished this time around. From the performances to the screenwriting to the cinematography (long-time Coens contributor Roger Deakins lends the film a visual style that is beautiful and haunting enough to rival his other great achievement of 2007, “The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford”) to the inspired choice for a musical score (which I will leave for you to discover), there is not a single flaw with the film that I can think of and it is one that I am certain that I will return to over and over again. Under normal circumstances, I am loathe to use the word “masterpiece” in discussing a new film on the grounds that it takes years for such an appellation to be honestly earned. In the case of “No Country For Old Men,” however, I am comfortable in waiving this objection. You will not see a better film this year.

Directed & Written by:    Joel & Ethan Coen. Screenplay adapted from
 Cormac McCarthy’s
novel of the same name
Starring:    Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin
Released:    11/09/07
Length:    122 minutes
Rating:    Rated R for strong graphic violence and some

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN © 2007  Paramount Vantage, Miramax Films.
Review © 2022 Alternate Reality, Inc.