Monday, November 12, 2007

No Country For Old Men

I've always been drawn to dark humor and have never shied away from violence in books or films. The Coen Brothers understand people like me. They made No Country For Old Men for us.

On Saturday, I talked about the impression the Coen Brothers' first film, Blood Simple, made on me twenty-two years ago.

This new film brings the brothers back to Texas. Like the international border the state straddles, the people in No Country negotiate the line between naive dreams and gritty reality, between honesty and dishonesty and--ultimately--between living a good life or dying a bad death.

Josh Brolin is Llewelyn Moss, a good ole boy living in a trailer with his wife Carla Jean. While he is out hunting one day, Llewelyn comes across the remains of a drug deal that went really, really bad. He finds dead men, drugs, guns...and $2 million in cash he decides to take.

This scene sets up the shaky ethical line Llewelyn walks. One of the drug dealers is still breathing. The welder is morally ambiguous enough to steal the money, but not bad enough to finish off the wounded Mexican. Had he done so, the rest of the story might never have occurred.

Tommy Lee Jones plays Ed Tom Bell, the sheriff in whose county the drug deal went down. No one does world weary as well as Jones. Sheriff Bell comes from a line of lawmen who have seen the evil that men can do. Even so, his growing dismay and alarm floods every frame in which he appears. His goal is to save Llewlyn from himself.

Finally, there is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the man sent to find the $2 million. At first glance, his Prince Valiant haircut and stony demeanor make him a figure of amusement. Viewers are quickly disabused.

Every time Chigurh appears, you can almost feel the breeze from the slaughterhouse. The only film villain I can think of who scared me as badly was Hannibal Lector. And Lector had a sense of humor that lightened his character. Chigurh has none. The closest I can come to describing him is The Terminator. Chigurh has that same relentless, humorless, nothing-can-stop-me air.

It was a while before it dawned on me that there was no music track for the movie. The only soundtrack was that of the action itself.

The film occasionally reminded me of Blood Simple: long shots of lonely highways at night, gunshots through walls and doors.

One of the especially creepy things about Chigurh is that he doesn't carry a normal gun. He walks around with an air gun that delivers a bolt used to kill cattle. Of course, it doesn't leave brass or GSR to incriminate him. But mostly it's a part of Chigurh's "otherness," those occasional glimpses inside him that let you know he's crazier than an attic filled with rabid raccoons.

Chigurh's body count rises so quickly that even the men who hired him have second thoughts. They bring in Woody Harrelson, who plays Carson Wells, as backup. There's a scene in which his employer asks Wells, "Just how dangerous is Chigurh?" Wells responds, "Compared to what? Bubonic plague?"

Here's the trailer for the film:

I think Bardem and Jones will be fighting each other for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Brolin makes his role look so effortless I'm not sure the Academy will nominate him. The film is presently in limited release. The theater in which I saw it had about seventy-five patrons. Only seven of them were female. That worries me a little for the movie's Academy Award chances.

The stark desolation of the land around Marfa, Texas where it was shot infuses the film with a hopeless, Apocalyptic quality. I've been to Marfa and Big Bend National Park. Its vastness utterly dwarfs you.

There's a sense of inevitability about No Country For Old Men. You know Chigurh will find Llewelyn, and you wait, scarcely daring to take a breath.

My only quibble with the film was the fact that they used CGI effects for the animals that were wounded or killed. The special effects were so obvious that, in a film that was very nearly perfect, this was a jarring note.

My favorite film in 2005 was History of Violence. If you liked that movie, I suspect you'll like this one (although it has none of the erotic quality found in History of Violence). I plan to go back again when it arrives in wide release. I need some time to think about it more first.

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