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Movie Review: No Country For Old Men

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After a succession of poorly received cinematic pastiches, the Coen brothers are back from the wasteland of critical scorn, with a compelling new film that has been well received in U.K. and the U.S., where Rolling Stone magazine made it their film of the year. No Country For Old Men is a faithful recreation of Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy’s novel.

Superficially this is a tale of a drug deal gone wrong, and the chase that ensues to retrieve the missing money. However this is not just the return of Coen brothers; this is the return of the Coen brothers at the top of their game (it may well be a photo finish between this and Fargo for their career movie) so nothing is that (blood) simple.

Josh Brolin, still with his American Gangster moustache, rapidly becoming this generation's Nick Nolte, is perfect as Llewelyn Moss, the hunter who becomes the hunted, an overly self-confident ‘Nam vet who meets the ultimate enemy, death, who’s worse than fate. Javier Bardem, who portrays this malevolent angel of death, is just outstanding as Anton Chigurh, the most efficient killing machine to hit the screen since Luc Bresson’s Leon, a metaphysical, psychopathic hit man, who fills the frame with fear whenever he’s in it.

Bardem is probably at home now extending his trophy cabinet, for Chigurh is a manifestation of simmering evil that will become legend, and must be in line for a string of awards. His impossibly huge, lugubriously expressive face, flashes from threatening evil to charitable benevolence and back, as he dispenses death or occasionally mercy, in the arid, dust-encrusted land of West Texas waltzes and dry-land farms, where manners are worth more than money, and being neighbourly never used to get you killed. His weapon of choice is a compressed air cattle gun, the irony of cowboys getting slaughtered like cattle just one of the many Coen-esque flourishes that linger long after the credits roll.

Tommy Lee Jones is the local sheriff, Ed Tom Bell, a role he’s spent his whole career rehearsing for. His voice-over opens the film, his dreams end it, and it is he and his generation who no longer belong, as he comments, "Anytime you quit hearin' 'sir' and 'ma'am' the end is pretty much in sight." This is a man who is part of the action, but also part of the audience, almost among us as, stoically aghast, he watches the body count grow higher and the buzzing of the flies get louder. He realises the old ways he cherishes will wither and die, and if he’s not very careful, he along with them. When his deputy asks him if he thinks Moss knows what he's up against, his reply is dry, but full of portent: "I don't know, he ought to. He's seen the same things I've seen, and it's certainly made an impression on me." This is a sheriff whose cause of upset is not his failure to catch the criminals; this is a sheriff whose concern is for the safety of those people he has sworn to serve and protect, if he is able. Jones doesn’t play Sheriff Bell, he inhabits him, a sardonic sage, wise, knowing, but ultimately resigned to a future that is one of social apocalypse; and one that he is impotent to arrest.

Woody Harrelson plays southern gentleman bounty hunter Carson Wells, a retired special forces Colonel, another ‘Nam vet who crosses Chigurh, and finds his forces aren’t special enough. Kelly Macdonald, once the Scottish schoolgirl seductress of Ewan MacGregor in Trainspotting, plays Moss’s trailer park wife with an affecting mixture of vulnerability and sassy compassion, with an accent that sounds like it has floated on the desert winds from Corpus Christie for all time.

The Coen brother’s direction is a master class in economy and dynamics. They keep up all the suspense and tension that the chase element of the narrative needs, while rejecting any of the usual clichés normally demanded by Hollywood. The enigmatic ending will infuriate many, as the dots remain defiantly un-joined; however if this is how you feel, the point of the film has been well and truly missed.

The Coens find time to let the camera linger on sweet wrappers unfurling, socks being changed, or cowboy boots just being, to keep the fans of their quirks busy with much to debate. There is probably a film studies thesis being written now about the use of reflection or numerology in this film. The film plays out devoid of musical distraction, the sound of silence punctuated by gravel crushed by boot, distant gunfire, or lonesome bells tolling. The dialogue, much of it directly from the novel, has a litany of quotable lines, and maintains the oblique strategy of real conversation, never descending into the archetypical narrative signposts that real blockbusters substitute for dialogue. It is this dialogue that takes this modern western, for all its fast paced action, and turns it into an elegiac meditation on life, death, and the regressive nature of progress.

"You can't stop what's comin'. It ain't all waitin' on you. That's vanity." So says Bell’s uncle Ellis as the story draws to a close. It is this theme that is at the heart of the film, as Chigurh’s personification of death stalks good men and bad, in a totally arbitrary manner (with Harrelson’s bounty hunter comparing Chigurh’s mortal ambition to the bubonic plague, one wonders if there isn’t a homage to Bergman’s Death in the Seventh Seal lurking within this movie).

This is a film where death may rest on the flip of a coin, the flush of a toilet, a good thought that followed a bad thought. This is death that has no rationale, and it is this paradox that the Coens examine, how we are the only species to question death, to get angry at its indiscriminate cruelty. They show how thoughtless acts can mean the difference between a right turn into a car wash or a wrong turn into a street shoot-out. This is a film where good and evil do not dance with the synchronicity that a Die Hard All Over Again or Lethal Weapon 17 deliver, this is a film that sticks the cattle prod of reality between your eyes, and quietly tells you: it ain’t why, it just is.

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  • http://kevineagan.blogspot.com Kevin Eagan

    Thanks for the review. The book was amazing, I hope the movie turns out to be just as exciting.

  • sed

    Most UN-satifying movie experience. Have seem something like this done better in Fargo. It leaves a lot of loose ends, does not follow through with the characters (lead character dies unexpectedly with no followup on that). Left a lot of sour taste in the mouth. Most of the time it was slow. And the last hope, the Sherif, quits his job and ends the movie while talking about his dream…. Yawwwn. If the book ends this way then I don’t think much of the book either. After investing more than an hour of your life following the characters and not getting any satifactory result is a shame. Definitely nothing to write home about.

  • Nigel Simons

    Sorry you didn’t enjoy it, that is, after all what the ultimate point of a movie is. The movie, I think, reflects the perplexing nature of life, with all its paradoxes and its deep inhumanities, and finds a way of reflecting them by ignoring convention: the good guys lose, the baddie gets away,and things do not turn out how you expect,a bit like life biting you in the behind when you least expect it. I thought it made a refreshing change, but accept its a long way from mainstream entertainment.

  • Will

    The real test of a movie, to me, is would I recommend it to others…NO WAY! THat said the movie contains, great acting, excessive violece, slow in many places, no ending. This is a “critics movie”. Not one I would recommend to anyone else.

  • Enemy Combatant

    Dear Mr. Simons, That’s the most wonderful film review I’ve read for quite a long time. Each paragraph is a beautifuly polished literary figurine beaming with comprehension and existentialist smarts. You absolutely “got it”. Several peers whose opinions I respect expressed frustration that there was “no resolution”, but appreciating sublime cinematography often depends on the scope of one’s own journeys.
    During the film, flashes of David Lynch’s “The Straight Story” and Jones’ “Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” were impossible to supress.

    Hope you have a smashing time taking your English Degree, “this is a film that sticks the cattle prod of reality between your eyes, and quietly tells you: it ain’t why, it just is.”, keep that sort of thing coming and First Class Honours will be a right of passage rather than a hard slog.
    Yours in Letters, EC.

    P.S. If you havn’t http://www.aldaily.com in your favourites column, it’s certainly worth considering. Thanks for the joy.

  • Nigel Simons

    It is I who must thank you: I now feel twice blessed, firstly for words of kindness in a world where most kneel at the footstool of fundamentalist selfism, and secondly for the web site address that is now firmly installed in my bookmarks under the ‘check daily section’ – thank you.