Sunday, January 20, 2008

No Country for Old Men

The greatest suspense thriller in years, No Country for Old Men also boasts, in my opinion, 2007’s best screenplay, best direction, best editing, and best ending. The drama unfolds slowly and naturally, but don’t get any wrong ideas about this film lagging for even a moment. The edge of every seat will be occupied, and no dry palm will be found within a two mile radius of the theater. As Tommy Lee Jones’ character in the film might say, “If this ain’t the year’s best movie, it’ll do ‘til the best one gets here.”

The tale unfolds near the Texas/Mexico border, 1980. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) comes across the bloody aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong. Amidst a slew of corpses baking in the noon-day sun, Llewelyn discovers a satchel stuffed full of money. He takes the cash, thus setting off the bloodiest chain of unfortunate events since … well, since the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, I suppose. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) sets out to protect Llewelyn from whoever may be hunting him, most notably the terrifying, psychotic killer, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem).

The Coen Brothers’ films have been hit and miss for me. Their films are unusual and different from one another, except that they all contain a cast of colorful, memorable characters. Everyone here has a great face, accent, or both. The dialogue is made up mostly of Southern wisdom, and the simple, homespun phrasing often seems poetic. The film opens with shots of wide open plains, matched with a voiceover by Sheriff Bell, reminiscing about the old days. “Some of the old-time sheriffs never even wore a gun. A lot of folks find that hard to believe. The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure … you can say it’s my job to fight it, but I don’t know what it is anymore.”

Javier Bardem turns in an eerie performance as a man without compassion or morals. If he does live by any ethical code, it’s one of his own invention. Sporting a bizarre, mop-top haircut, he kills primarily with a cattle gun, powered by a tank of compressed air. He often seems bored, as if killing innocent people has grown unspeakably dull. He sometimes gives victims a chance to survive on a coin-toss, and there’s a masterful scene early in the film where Anton flips a coin in a filling station and tells the old man behind the counter to call it. The clerk looks nervously at the covered coin, saying, “I got to know what I stand to win.” Chigurh quickly responds, “Everything.” After more silence, the clerk says, “I didn’t put nothin’ up.” “Yes you did,” Chigurh tells him. “You’ve been putting it up your whole life; you just didn’t know it.”

The suspense in this film reaches Hitchcockian proportions. Everything blends together to make a piece of perfect storytelling. The editing and pacing are just right, the performances are all understated, and the dialogue has real purpose. No Country for Old Men respects the intelligence of its audience. There are no superfluous, explanatory lines of dialogue, because we don’t need them. We know only as much as the characters know in any given moment, and in that sense we’re along for the ride. The cinematography highlights the emptiness of West Texas, thus evoking the vastness of evil, the inevitability of fate. The film contains almost no music, so that we vividly hear every bullet, every creak, every gust of wind. The Coen Brothers took a minimalist, less-is-more approach, and anything else would have weakened the impact.

Now, about that perfect ending I mentioned earlier. I won’t dare reveal any details, except that I was sitting in the theater, completely enthralled, when the thought actually crossed my mind, “What if the film just ended right now? How fitting and courageous it would be … ” Before the thought was even fully formed, the screen cut to black, the credits began to silently roll, and I knew I had seen something great. “Perfect” is a strong word, not to be used lightly by any critic, but I have no hesitations about using it here. The Coen Brothers have made an American masterpiece.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong graphic violence and some language

The violence in this film is very, very strong. It’s not strong because it’s graphic; any two-bit horror movie can be graphic, and most horror films are more explicit (in terms of what you see) than this one. This is the story of a crazy, conscienceless serial killer, and the violence here is frighteningly, unapologetically real. It would be nightmare material for any preteen, and anyone too young to buy their own ticket should be cautious. It’s a great film, albeit an upsetting one.

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