Thursday, February 21, 2008

Shot to Thrill: No Country For Old Men

[With the Academy Awards approaching, this week The Cooler is posting reviews of the Best Picture nominees, written upon the films’ release in the author’s pre-blog era. Feel free to use the comments section to argue why your favorite nominee should win or why any of these films didn’t deserve to be nominated.]

The movie begins with the rich cinematography of Roger Deakins and the sun-baked Texas landscape. On screen we see gentle plains, modest bluffs and acres of unforgiving brush. Save a rusty windmill in the distance and a modest barbwire fence in the foreground, there’s not a sign this land has been touched by man. And yet it’s exactly the kind of landscape that we sense has seen it all. To these visuals is added the voice of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones with a husky Southern twang and saddlebag eyes that look as if they’ve seen too much. Bell tells us that his father used to be a lawman, too, like his father before him. He tells us that the “old timers” never used to carry guns, sounding every bit the old timer himself in the process. The year is 1980, but it feels like it could be 1880. No Country For Old Men is a modern Western with classical roots made with classical filmmaking techniques by modern filmmakers who have never been better.

That last point will be passionately debated. The auteurs behind this movie are Joel and Ethan Coen, whose previous works include critical darlings like Blood Simple, cult classics like The Big Lebowski and movies that qualify as both like Fargo. The Coens’ films tend to be distinctive and daring – even in failure, as with their misguided remake of The Ladykillers – and they are adored for their unique brand of earnestly foolish humor. But the same skill that has won the Coens so much praise sometimes seems to hold them back, miring them in the offbeat or the surreal. The difference in No Country is that they refreshingly go for the jugular. Oh, make no mistake: this film isn’t always serious. It’s peppered with that deadpan Coen humor. But you won’t leave this picture giggling about any wood chippers. This Coen effort, adapted from a novel by Cormac McCarthy, is an experience that puts the audience through the wringer instead.

No Country is a triumph on nearly every level. The acting is good, the writing is good, the cinematography is great and the editing (for which the Coens are also responsible) is spectacular. The story is divided into three subplots that are never far apart but that rarely share the same room. Josh Brolin plays Llewelyn Moss, a plain old country boy who happens upon the remnants of a drug deal gone wrong. This puts him in possession of a satchel holding $2 million, and the dead bodies littering the ground tell Llewleyn that he’d best take the money and run. Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh is the bounty-hunting, murderous psychopath that Llewelyn is running from, but it’ll be a while before Llewelyn knows that. Meanwhile, Jones’ Bell is a few steps behind and on the trail of both men, but it’s Llewelyn he wants – not to nab him but to save him from Chigurh. That Bell would sooner avoid a fight than seek to arrest a monstrous criminal tells you everything about him that you need to know. Certainly Bell is nothing like Jones’ Marshal Samuel Gerard from The Fugitive. But you’ll need to pay attention to catch that.

And so it is with the entire film. No Country isn’t impenetrable, it isn’t even elusive, but it isn’t overt either. And by today’s standards, in which plot developments tend to be advertised in blinking neon, lest we dummies in the audience miss them, this makes No Country seem a bit vague. Even ambiguous. But it isn’t. All the pieces we need to put the puzzle together are there on the table for us. And if the finished picture includes some patches of shadowy uncertainty, well, it’s supposed to be that way. But this is a movie that requires active movie-watching, a movie in which the bow that wraps up the story is handed to us before the rest of the gift, in the form of Bell’s opening narration. But if you appreciate a film that haunts you and worms its way into your thoughts for days after seeing it, this is your movie. No Country clings to the imagination like a barb.

Then again, No Country has the power to overwhelm even the casual observer. In a film that’s truly about fate, destiny and evil, the business with Llwelyn, Chigurh and the money is nothing more than a MacGuffin. But it’s one hell of a MacGuffin! Except for Danny Boyle’s superb sci-fi hit Sunshine, no movie this year comes close to matching No Country’s tension and gut-wrenching gravity. For roughly the first 90 minutes of the 122-minute picture it seems something is always happening or is about to. Its suspense is Hitchcockian. Its adrenaline seems prescribed by Michael Bay. And yet here is filmmaking as straightforward as you’ll ever find. There are no Paul Greengrass quick-cuts (Bourne Ultimatum). There are no showy Alfonso Cuaron extended sequences (Children Of Men). It’s just Deakins’ patient cinematography: each shot showing us just enough and never too much.

Film is a visual medium, but few movies are actually this visually effective (or this affective, for that matter). Show this movie to someone with the sound turned off and I guarantee they’d more or less follow the plot, including its intricacies. But I wouldn’t recommend that. No Country may unfold without a score, but it’s alive with sound: the crunching of boots in the dirt, the serpentine hiss of the air tank that powers Chigurh’s weapon of choice, the sound of a phone ringing off the distance and, yes, the pregnant scream of silence. That a movie can be this suspenseful without the added music cues is a credit to the Coens’ craft. And yet No Country might be too pulse-pounding for its own good. Movie-goers who get so wrapped up in the exhilarating MacGuffin that they miss the story’s larger themes will be at least nonplused if not even thoroughly disgusted by the movie’s admittedly flat final act.

But No Country’s shortcomings pale in comparison to its strengths. What lingers are the characters: Bell’s haunted premonitory gaze; Llewelyn’s in-over-his-head grit; the loving concern of Llewlyn’s wife Carla Jean (played affectionately by Kelly Macdonald); and perhaps most of all the animalistic detachment of Chigurh. Bound by a perverted moral code only he understands, Chigurh is an enigma, and Bardem’s deliciously obscure portrayal adds layers to the riddle. Maybe not since Hannibal Lecter has a villain been this simultaneously menacing and captivating. And never before have the Coens made a film so deeply satisfying. The true letdown is that it ever has to end.

Related: Searching for Chigurh


Anonymous said...

I thought this film was better the second time I watched it because I had just read "The Road" by McCarthy and I couldn't get that struggle out of my head. I agree with you: it's an almost flawless film and I did prefer it over the book because the actors (even the small roles in this film) gave it a different life. Anton Chigurh scares the hell out of me. Great film.

Jason Bellamy said...

Chris: Thanks for the comment!

I liked "No Country" the first time I saw it, but as with you it took a second viewing to see it as truly great. (A third viewing confirmed the greatness again.) Speaking of those small roles, I think it's a shame that Kelly Macdonald (as Carla Jean) has been so overlooked in the awards season (Ruby Dee? Really?). And, if we're honest about it, the best SUPPORTING performance of the film is the one by Gene Jones as the gas station attendant. His reactions to Chigurh (really a lead role) are essential to what makes that scene so terrifying.

"No Country" is my prediction and my pick. It's the best movie of the year.

Unknown said...

"No Country For Old Men" is such a great flick. Phoenix art museum is hosting a viewing of the film as part of its Museum Events ... I know I'll definitely be in attendance!