Monday, November 05, 2007

No Country For Old Men

Yes! Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes! Fuck yes! Awesome! Fucking finally! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!

I'm pleased to report to you that, for the first time since 2001's terrific The Man Who Wasn't There, the Coen Brothers have actually directed a real movie again. (Don't even try to remember the two...items...they released in the interim. They're not worth it.) No Country for Old Men is a total return to form for the Coens. Literally. It takes them back to the form of their 1984 debut, Blood Simple - occasionally gruesome, darkly funny thriller.

Joel and Ethan demonstrate the same kind of impeccable timing and mastery of form here that's on display in classics like Blood Simple, Fargo and Miller's Crossing, but also a grim intensity that's pretty much entirely new to their filmography. No Country's expertly shot like their other films (by frequent collaborator Roger Deakins), it's often hilarious with a tremendous ear for quirkly dialect and slang like their other films, but it's also brutal and intense. Relentless, even.

What I found most refreshing about the film, and what makes it a total departure from their previous, lackluster outings, is that they no longer feel desperate to please. No Country is a difficult movie, a harsh movie, and it doesn't always make perfect sense. For about 2 hours, it's a shocking, violent chase movie, and then everything changes.

I sense that many will find the conclusion frustrating. But it's a rare thing to see filmmakers take a movie where it needs to go rather than where the audience might want it to go. The set-up is so crackerjack here, you'd have to be crazy not to want some direct, explosive and unambiguous conclusion. But the Coens (working from a novel by Cormac McCarthy) give you something even more satisfying. A mystery. A curiosity. As Sheriff Ed Tom Bell might say, signs and wonders.

The action begins in a series of stark, nearly silent desert sequences. A Texas hunter, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), stumbles across the remnants of a drug deal gone sour. The truckload of product and the dead Mexicans don't interest him much. But the briefcase containing $2 million strikes him as a bit more useful.

Before he can even discuss his newfound wealth with his wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald), Llewelyn becomes the target of some very very bad men. There's the remaining drug dealers who want their money back, of course, as well as shifty gun-for-hire Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson, as good as he's been in a movie in years). As if that wasn't enough, Llewelyn's also being sought by seen-it-all Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (a note-perfect Tommy Lee Jones), who doesn't seem terribly concerned about the massacre in his district but nonetheless wonders why Moss' truck was found near the scene.

Llewelyn's a resourceful guy, so he's not too afraid of these initial threats. His main worry comes in the form of unstoppable lunatic Anton Chigurh, who lurches around West Texas carrying a cumbersome air gun and isn't afraid to use it on the forehead of some innocent passer-by. Chigurh is played by Javier Bardem in one of the most idiosyncratic, peculiar and ingenious performances in any Coen Brothers film, EVER. And these are guys known for their idiosyncratic, peculiar characters.

Bardem's got the look of Chigurh down, the stilted manner of speaking, the body language, the whole deal, but what really sells this psychopath are the little tics and details. This guy is a complete monster - not just a willing murderer, but a man who feels totally justified in killing. It's unclear whether he's on a kill-crazy rampage to access the money or whether the money just provides his latest excuse for going on a kill-crazy rampage. Bardem makes him uncontrollably crazy but also recognizably human. He's vulnerable and invincible at the same time.

So well established is Chigurh's menace and Moss' sympathetic goodness, the plotting essentially takes care of itself for two hours. The Coens set up one slickly-designed, perfectly realized set piece after another. With 50 years of professional filmmaking experience between the two of them, these guys have developed finely honed instincts for playing around with an audience, and they get the most out of every jolt in McCarthy's breathlessly savage story. There's almost too many suspenseful sequences; I felt exhausted when it was all over.

(I don't want to blow anything, but there's one dazzling moment that just demands some attention. Moss, sitting in a darkened room with shotgun at the ready, hears Chigurh creeping up from outside, and sees his the shadows of his feet flash by under the door jamb. We think, "at any second, the door's going to come bursting open and there's going to be a crazy shootout." Instead, the Coens take this opportunity to raise the stakes and increase the tension, not letting you off the hook. People in the audience were split into three reactions - some yelped, others laughed and still others applauded. I did all three.)

The final act, as I said, shifts gears in some ways. A scene that doesn't feel entirely pivotal fades to black (the first time this has been used as a transition), and suddenly we're looking at things from a different perspective, taking all that has come before and combing through it for meaning. The story concludes, but in a most un-thriller-like fashion, leaving strands of narrative unresolved and far more questions than answers. (Just as Bell is nearing retirement from the Sheriff's Department, the Coens' film almost seems to enter retirement from toying with your emotions. "That's all the excitement I can handle. I'm going to let you all take it from here."

Though it's certainly ambiguous, No Country morphs into what feels like a contemplation of the meaning of Death. Specifically, the moment immediately before death, heavy with the knowledge of its impending arrival. (The storyline allows for a great many such moments throughout its 120-some minutes, although it could be argued that we spend every moment of our adult lives sick with the knowledge that soon we will day.)

The film opens with a Tommy Lee Jones monologue in which he makes plain his understanding that his job may eventually cause his demise. Moss, before making the first of several bold decisions that will place his life in danger, asks his wife to tell his mother he loves her, in case he doesn't return. (She reminds him his mother's already dead. ) Chigurh, the vicious murderer, may be the only one who isn't really at peace with the notion of his own mortality. Implicit in his constant drive to live and press on and pursue is the innate fear of ever having to stop. Perhaps his killing, the idea of the chase itself, not to mentio his fondness for watching others die, stems from a desire to conquer the one thing he can't overrun.


Ari said...

I can't wait to see this. I haven't read a single negative review. Sounds so great.

drummer510 said...

finally da coen is back