No Country for Old Men (2007) dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, Kelly MacDonald
“No Country For Old Men” is like no other film. Only Sam Peckinpah at his drunkest (“The Getaway” or “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia”) could compare to the assault of bloody carnage that is this film. It’s the most emotionally dispassionate film about greed and violence I’ve ever seen. Saying all that, the film may be a masterpiece, but it’s not perfect - a complex backstory emerges, with much of it left unclear and for us to fill in the gaps, as well as an obtuse ending that will make your head scratch. But its masterfulness lies in its sparse depiction of two men fueled by greed to find a lost satchel of money – a head to head battle with a dozen or more corpses left in their wake.
I haven’t read the novel by Cormac McCarthy, and so I will only comment on the film itself - not what was left out, expanded or contracted, or what was better about the book. And beware of some spoilers towards the end of this review.
Tommy Lee Jones narrates the film like an omniscient observer of the events about to take place (like Sam Elliot in “The Big Lebowski” or Moses the Clockman in “Hudsucker Proxy”). He’s a sheriff with a wealth of knowledge and experience about the violent nature of man. His opening speech describes a teenage boy he sent to the electric chair without any second thoughts. The boy was made of pure evil –the Michael Myers type of evil that has no rational thought, emotion, or sanity.
Our hero is Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) who, while hunting in the desert, accidentally discovers a dope deal gone wrong – a half dozen dead bodies as well as a dead dog. Left over is the classic briefcase full of money - $2 million worth – enough for Moss and his shy wife, Carla (Kelly MacDonald) to retire. Moss is an intelligent character established by showing the details of his thought-process. He knows someone will eventually come looking for the money. And so, like a great chess player he calculates several moves ahead of his adversaries. But for most of the film, he doesn’t know who’s persuing him – just a relentless force of nature – echoing footsteps in a hall, or a vacant voice on the phone.
This force of nature is the evil Jones describes to us at the beginning. The Bubonic Plague with legs - Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). The Michael Myers (“Halloween”) comparison is appropriate not only in his actions, but also how he is shot by the Coens. He is slow, methodical and literally impossible to kill. His weapon of choice is an oxygen tank and a silenced shotgun.
Three quarters of the film is a quid pro quo chase through Texas and into Mexico. Like the detailed mechanics of the events in “Blood Simple” the Coens craft a series of masterful sequences of predator and prey. The piece-de-résistance of sequences – which should win the Coen’s their first directing Oscar - is a scene which starts with a hotel room confrontation between Moss and Anton and ends out on the street amid a hail of bullets and blood.
Like “Fargo” the Coens leave style and cleverness on the cutting room floor and tell the story with a sparse cinematic technique. The performances and characters lead the story. Josh Brolin has never been better – and to think the brothers didn’t want Brolin for the role. It took an audition tape directed by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez to convince them to let Brolin in the door. And now, I couldnf’t imagine anyone else in that role. Javier Bardem, who has been buzzed about ever since they started shooting, is the real deal. The showcase scene for Bardem is his confrontation with a gas station attendant. The rhythm of dialogue is off-putting and tense. Bardem sets a new bar for sadistic maniacs. Move over Hannibal Lector – you’ve been trumped.
But as I said the film is not perfect. In fact it ticked me off towards the end… SPOILERS ahead. The exit of one of the characters got me very angry. Somewhere in the third act he/she is killed off unceremoniously and we are given only a quick shot of the dead body to identify them to us. It was so quick I missed it, and so I was confused for the rest of the film whether he/she was dead or not. But my issue is not the killing of one of our heroes, but the fact it was done off-screen. Ok, it’s clear the Coens are telling us that their film is not typical cinematic fare, where heroes die like heroes and villains die like villains. Does that make the film better or greater? I will likely learn to accept this in subsequent viewings, but I will stay mad at the film for not giving me the final dramatic confrontation the film had been setting up the entire way.
The film also turns into Tommy Lee Jones’ story at the end. This confused me. Though the voiceover in the film is Jones’ he is virtually inactive and doesn’t affect the plot or events in the story. I’m still trying to reason the significance of his two final monologues – one to his ex-partner and the other to his wife at the end. It’s not clear to me and I desperately wish it was. For a film that was so clear and focused for 105 mins, having the final 15 mins as obscure and obtuse as it is confounds me.
But “No Country For Old Men” is still the must-see film of the year. And with the precedent of “The Departed” the Academy doesn’t seem to have a problem with high body counts, so I hope we see the Coen Bros on the podium come Oscar season. Enjoy.
Here’s a piece from the IFC News: