No Country for Old Men

starring Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin
written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen
rated R for strong graphic violence and some language.

The year is 1980. Llewelyn Moss (Brolin), a Vietnam vet, is out hunting in the West Texas wilderness when he happens upon the scene of a drug deal gone bad and finds a satchel with $2 million in it. He takes the money and runs, putting himself in the path of a relentless, unstoppable killer named Anton Chigurh (Bardem). Meanwhile, aging small-town sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Jones) follows in the wake of destruction they leave behind and struggles to make sense of an evil that is beyond his capacity to take in. Tension builds to a fever-pitch and the three men seem fated to collide in an explosive showdown, but nothing is quite as it seems in this grim masterpiece.

No Country for Old Men, based on Pulitzer prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, may well be the Coen brothers’ definitive masterwork. Their extremely profitable partnership has produced the likes of Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There and O Brother, Where Art Thou? during the last two decades. An impressive list, to be sure, but this literary adaptation, flawlessly realized with an unflinching and unified vision, is the best and purest film of 2007, and one of the best of the past decade.

I’ve been doing a lot of research lately on the work of Alfred Hitchcock, and as I watched No Country for Old Men I was struck over and over again by the thought that Hitch would have loved this movie. It’s greatest strength (amid many) is the visual nature of its storytelling technique. The directors convey so much through the lens of the camera alone, there is almost no need for audible clues. Minutes pass in tense silence as masterfully staged and shot events unfold. One doesn’t even realize until music begins over the end credits that there wasn’t a single note played during the entire rest of the film. Meanwhile, the actors nail every scene, meshing their performances together perfectly. There are truly no small roles in this picture. I don’t have time to catalog them all here, but Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones, at least, deserve special mention for their outstanding work.

Expect Anton Chigurh to haunt top ten movie villain lists for decades to come. “Just how dangerous is he?” one character inquires of another. “Compared to what?” his companion replies, “The bubonic plague?” He is Death incarnate; an untouchable and truly terrifying force of nature who grants either life or death to everyone he encounters with equal indifference based on the dispassionate randomness of something as simple as a coin toss. Bardem, with his gravelly, emotionless delivery and watery gaze, lends just the right touches to his evil alter-ego. “Call it, friend-o.”

As for Sheriff Bell, it would seem that this is the role Tommy Lee Jones was born to play (with the groundwork laid, in part, by his excellent work in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, which he also directed). His sad eyes betray how deeply affected he is by the shocking events that are unfolding, even as his sardonic, drawling comments belie these sentiments. As he surveys the carnage of the drug bust, his somewhat dim deputy (appropriately named “Wendell”) asks rhetorically “It’s a mess, ain’t it, sheriff?” “If it ain’t, it’ll do till the mess gets here,” Bell returns. Bell wants to be Andy Griffith, the wise, caring small-town sheriff who never has to pull his gun, but he finds himself living in the days of hard drugs and school shootings. “You can’t stop what’s coming,” a friend counsels him, “And it ain’t all waitin’ on you. That’s vanity.” The world he longs to inhabit doesn’t exist. Maybe it never did.

I keep dropping quotes in here and there, because I can’t get this film’s dialogue out of my head anymore than I can exorcise its imagery. It is peppered with phrases, both poignant and funny, that stick under your skin and moments you want to watch on instant-replay. Really, though, just writing them here doesn’t do them justice. Sometimes it’s all in the delivery, like one of my favorite light-hearted moments. Llewelyn walks into a western clothing store a few days after purchasing a pair of Larry Mahan boots, only this time he’s dressed in nothing but a flimsy hospital gown and his new boots. The proprietor glances up and casually asks, “How’re them Larrys holding up?” It’s priceless stuff.

No Country for Old Men, keeping faith with the original novel, makes some audacious storytelling choices, and the ending is shocking in its defiance of convention; so much so, in fact, that the majority of the audience I saw it with seemed less than pleased with the whole. Don’t be stodgy. The only thing I could think about as I watched the credits scroll upwards was maybe going out and getting another ticket to see it again immediately. Having just moved, I have few friends in the area, but had I known any likely candidates I probably would have gone straight out and brought them back for the very next showing. The next best thing, then, is to encourage everyone who reads this to find a way to get to this movie. Maybe that’ll get me someone to discuss it with. Beware the coming of the DVD release, when I shall be inflicting it upon everyone in range. Meanwhile, maybe I can catch it again tomorrow . . .

~ by Jared on November 27, 2007.

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