Monday, January 14, 2008

No Country For Old Men

So here it is, what may well be the best movie of 2007 (at least the first one I’ve seen that can knock Grindhouse off of the rather lofty position it’s been maintaining in my mind). This comes, mind you, from someone whose expectations of greatness from this film had become so unreasonably high that anything short of perfection was probably going to be a disappointment.

This is the first film from the Coen brothers that I’ve seen since 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There. Given the general reaction people had to Intolerable Cruelty and the remake of The Ladykillers, I don’t think I was really missing too much with them, but I have been eager for some time to see this. So much so, in fact, that when my initial efforts to see it were thwarted, I went ahead and bought the book, figuring I’d just wait for the DVD. I’m glad I didn’t actually wait that long.

The film’s plot is pretty basic. A Texas boy named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) happens to stumble across drug deal done horribly wrong, and decides to reach for the stars by stealing a briefcase with 2 million dollars inside. Chasing after him are Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who wants to protect him from the other men chasing him, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a psychopath that leaves a constant trail of bodies in his wake, and Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), a cocky bounty hunter who’s been hired to deal with the Chigurh problem. The film is visually just amazing; there’s a slow and steady progression to events that leaves you with plenty of time to take in the scenery, and the Coen brothers show a control over their camerawork greater than has been seen in their work since Fargo. In fact, I’d say this might well be their greatest film yet, an impressive achievement for a duo that already have such an impressive filmography.

Josh Brolin is not having a very good day.

The performances are equally powerful. Javier Bardem is one of the scariest movie villains I’ve seen in a long time; he has very little emotion to him, seeming to view all the murders he commits as something he’s required, or perhaps simply fated, to do. Tommy Lee Jones, fresh off of his success directing and starring in another miserable western (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada), just seems completely overwhelmed here. He views himself as a relic from another time, and has no idea what he’s doing anymore, or how to even try to catch what he openly calls a “ghost” rather than a man. Kelly Macdonald also excels as Moss’s wife, and despite her comparatively brief screen time, she manages to be the only one in the entire film that really stands up to Chigurh and his monstrousness.

There are so many powerful scenes throughout this film, an entire review could be made just of cataloguing them. There’s a scene early on, shown in the trailer, where Anton is in a store, flips a coin, and makes the store owner call whether it’s heads or tails. The tension just continues to build, as despite it never being explicitly stated what the coin toss will decide, both Anton and the owner (and the audience) fully understand what’s riding on that toss. The idea of someone’s life being determined by something as random as the toss of a coin comes up again at the end of the film. Sheriff Bell, knowing that Anton returned to a different crime scene the next night, decides to investigate a new crime scene at a motel. He has two taped off rooms to choose from when he arrives; we see, though he doesn’t, that one of them contains Anton waiting to kill him. Which door he chooses is completely random, yet it’s going to make all the difference between whether he lives or dies. The coin toss comes up differently for another character shortly afterward.

A good deal has been made of the ending. While I personally really enjoyed it, I can see why others would have a problem (SPOILER WARNING, by the way). The film builds itself up to a fairly explosive climax, only to avoid all expectations and give us a mean, ugly anticlimax instead. Two main characters are murdered without us seeing it, one of whom we didn’t even know was in any immediate danger. Leaving the scene of the second killing, Chigurh is struck by a car that runs a red light; he leaves his car with a badly broken arm, and is helpfully told by witnesses not to worry, for police and ambulances are already on their way. We expect this to be where he is finally caught, only for him to buy a shirt and secrecy off one of the young witnesses, and slip away back into the shadows, leaving us with just one broken down character left that is no longer able to deal with life. The Coen brothers made a wise decision to heavily shorten the epilogue, which in the book went on for quite some time and gave us a lot more philosophizing. That worked okay in the book, but it would not have worked here. Here it takes just the time it needs to end on a note of somber despair at the state of things, and then we get the credits.

Rating: ****


Patrick Roberts said...

just saw no country for old men; it's unassumingly unconventional and yet (thankfully) never over the top. the ending was a bit dumbfounding, but that can be a good thing... all in all the Coen brothers deserve their Oscars, well done indeed.

Zach said...

Yeah, I was prepared for the ending by having read the book first, but I do like how it avoided any conventionality while still managing to feel like the proper way to close the story. It's the first Best Picture win in some time that I've fully agreed with.