Monday, February 18, 2008

No Country For Old Men

There are no clean getaways.

The time is our own, when rustlers have given way to drug- runners and small towns have become free-fire zones. The story begins when Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds a pick-up truck surrounded by a sentry of dead men. A load of heroin and two million dollars in cash are still in the back. When Moss takes the money, he sets off a chain reaction of catastrophic violence that not even the law - in the person of aging, disillusioned Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) - can contain. As Moss tries to evade his pursuers - in particular a mysterious mastermind who flips coins for human lives (Javier Bardem) - the film simultaneously strips down the American crime drama and broadens its concerns to encompass themes as ancient as the Bible and as bloodily contemporary as this morning's headlines.

Misguided souls will tell you that No Country for Old Men is out for blood, focused on vengeance and unconcerned with the larger world outside a standard-issue suspense plot. Those people, of course, are deaf, dumb and blind to anything that isn't spelled out between commercials on dying TV networks. Joel and Ethan Coen's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel is an indisputably great movie, at this point the year's very best. Set in 1980 in West Texas, where the chase is on for stolen drug money, the film — a new career peak for the Coen brothers, who share writing and directing credits — is a literate meditation (scary words for the Transformers crowd) on America's bloodlust for the easy fix. It's also as entertaining as hell, which tends to rile up elitists. What do the criminal acts of losers in a flyover state have to do with the life of the mind?
Plenty, as it turns out. McCarthy reveals a soulless America that is no country for anyone, never mind old men. The so-called codger representing besieged law and order is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones with the kind of wit and assurance that reveals a master actor at the top of his game. On the page, the sheriff is a tad too folksy, dishing out cracker-barrel wisdom to his good wife, Loretta (Tess Harper), with a twinkle written into his homespun truths. As you already know by now (and In the Valley of Elah categorically proves it), Mr. Jones does not do twinkle. He's a hard-ass. And when he chews into a good line, you can see the bite marks. Here's the sheriff on how crime has gotten so out of hand: "It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Anytime you quit hearin' 'sir' and 'ma'am,' the end is pretty much in sight."

That unpretty end takes the form of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), an assassin who rivals Hannibal Lecter for dispatching his victims without breaking a sweat. Bardem, with pale skin and the world's worst haircut, is stupendous in the role, a monster for the ages. Beneath his dark eyes lies something darker, evil topped with the cherry of perverse humor. Chigurh carries around a bulky cattle gun. He'll politely ask a mark to get out of a car before he caps him in the head; that way the car won't get messy with gristle and brain matter. And he has this little game he plays. Staring at the human species like a visitor from another planet, Chigurh flips a coin. Your choice of heads or tails might just save your life. Only don't piss him off.

It's Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) who comes down hard on Chigurh's bad side. Moss is a cowboy in a world with no more room for cowboys. He enjoys teasing his wife, Carla Jean (the excellent Kelly Macdonald), but you can feel his discontent. Then one day, when he's out hunting antelope, he gets his shot at the big score. Right out there in the desert are a half-dozen dead bodies drawing flies. One man, barely alive, sits in a truck and begs for water. It's a massacre. There's also a stash of heroin and $2 million in cash. Moss takes the cash and runs. Wouldn't you? That question sets up the film's moral dilemma and puts us in Moss' boots. This is Brolin's breakthrough — he rips into the role like a man possessed, giving Moss the human touch the part needs. Moss even returns to the scene that night with water for the dying man. Huge mistake. Shots ring out, and Moss, after packing his wife off to her folks, goes on the run with Chigurh on his tail and the sheriff tracking both of them.

That's all you'll hear from me about plot. The kick comes in watching all the gears mesh with thrilling exactitude. I've heard some carping about the ending, which stays tone-faithful to McCarthy instead of going for Hollywood pow. Hmm. I thought that'd be worth a cheer. No Country for Old Men offers an embarrassment of riches. Jones, Bardem and Brolin all give award-caliber performances. Roger Deakins again proves himself a poet of light and shadow as director of photography. Carter Burwell's insinuating score finds a way to nail every nuance without underlining a single one of them. Props are also due editor Roderick Jaynes, who no one's ever seen, since he's a pseudonym both Coen brothers hide behind.

OK, then. How does No Country for Old Men stack up against the best work of these artfully merry pranksters? Near the top, I'd say. There are echoes of Fargo when a deputy declares, "It's a mess, ain't it, Sheriff?" and the sheriff answers, "If it ain't, it'll do till the mess gets here." And admirers of Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink and even The Big Lebowski will find tasty bits of bright and bleak to noodle on. But this landmark of a movie is fresh territory for the Coens, accused, often unfairly, of glib facility and lack of passionate purpose. Screw that. Not since Robert Altman merged with the short stories of Raymond Carver in Short Cuts have filmmakers and author fused with such devastating impact as the Coens and McCarthy. Good and evil are tackled with a rigorous fix on the complexity involved. Recent movies about Iraq have pushed hard to show the growing dehumanization infecting our world. No Country doesn't have to preach or wave a flag — it carries in its bones the virus of what we've become. The Coens squeeze us without mercy in a vise of tension and suspense, but only to force us to look into an abyss of our own making.

“No Country for Old Men,” adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, is bleak, scary and relentlessly violent. At its center is a figure of evil so calm, so extreme, so implacable that to hear his voice is to feel the temperature in the theater drop.

But while that chilly sensation is a sign of terror, it may equally be a symptom of delight. The specter of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a deadpan sociopath with a funny haircut, will feed many a nightmare, but the most lasting impression left by this film is likely to be the deep satisfaction that comes from witnessing the nearly perfect execution of a difficult task. “No Country for Old Men” is purgatory for the squeamish and the easily spooked. For formalists — those moviegoers sent into raptures by tight editing, nimble camera work and faultless sound design — it’s pure heaven.

So before I go any further, allow me my moment of bliss at the sheer brilliance of the Coens’ technique. And it is mostly theirs. The editor, Roderick Jaynes, is their longstanding pseudonym. The cinematographer, Roger Deakins, and the composer, Carter Burwell, are collaborators of such long standing that they surely count as part of the nonbiological Coen fraternity. At their best, and for that matter at their less than best, Joel and Ethan Coen, who share writing and directing credit here, combine virtuosic dexterity with mischievous high spirits, as if they were playing Franz Liszt’s most treacherous compositions on dueling banjos. Sometimes their appetite for pastiche overwhelms their more sober storytelling instincts, so it is something of a relief to find nothing especially showy or gimmicky in “No Country.” In the Coen canon it belongs with “Blood Simple,” “Miller’s Crossing” and “Fargo” as a densely woven crime story made more effective by a certain controlled stylistic perversity.

The script follows Mr. McCarthy’s novel almost scene for scene, and what the camera discloses is pretty much what the book describes: a parched, empty landscape; pickup trucks and taciturn men; and lots of killing. But the pacing, the mood and the attention to detail are breathtaking, sometimes literally.

In one scene a man sits in a dark hotel room as his pursuer walks down the corridor outside. You hear the creak of floorboards and the beeping of a transponder, and see the shadows of the hunter’s feet in the sliver of light under the door. The footsteps move away, and the next sound is the faint squeak of the light bulb in the hall being unscrewed. The silence and the slowness awaken your senses and quiet your breathing, as by the simplest cinematic means — Look! Listen! Hush! — your attention is completely and ecstatically absorbed. You won’t believe what happens next, even though you know it’s coming.

By the time this moment arrives, though, you have already been pulled into a seamlessly imagined and self-sufficient reality. The Coens have always used familiar elements of American pop culture and features of particular American landscapes to create elaborate and hermetic worlds. Mr. McCarthy, especially in the western phase of his career, has frequently done the same. The surprise of “No Country for Old Men,” the first literary adaptation these filmmakers have attempted, is how well matched their methods turn out to be with the novelist’s.

Mr. McCarthy’s book, for all its usual high-literary trappings (many philosophical digressions, no quotation marks), is one of his pulpier efforts, as well as one of his funniest. The Coens, seizing on the novel’s genre elements, lower the metaphysical temperature and amplify the material’s dark, rueful humor. It helps that the three lead actors — Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin along with Mr. Bardem — are adept at displaying their natural wit even when their characters find themselves in serious trouble.

The three are locked in a swerving, round-robin chase that takes them through the empty ranges and lonely motels of the West Texas border country in 1980. The three men occupy the screen one at a time, almost never appearing in the frame together, even as their fates become ever more intimately entwined.

Mr. Jones plays Ed Tom Bell, a world weary third-generation sheriff whose stoicism can barely mask his dismay at the tide of evil seeping into the world. Whether Chigurh is a magnetic force moving that tide or just a particularly nasty specimen carried in on it is one of the questions the film occasionally poses. The man who knows him best, a dandyish bounty-hunter played by Woody Harrelson, describes Chigurh as lacking a sense of humor. But the smile that rides up one side of Chigurh’s mouth as he speaks suggests a diabolical kind of mirth — just as the haircut suggests a lost Beatle from hell — and his conversation has a teasing, riddling quality. The punch line comes when he blows a hole in your head with the pneumatic device he prefers to a conventional firearm.

And the butt of his longest joke is Llewelyn Moss (Mr. Brolin), a welder who lives in a trailer with his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) and is dumb enough to think he’s smart enough to get away with taking the $2 million he finds at the scene of a drug deal gone bad. Chigurh is charged with recovering the cash (by whom is neither clear nor especially relevant), and poor Sheriff Bell trails behind, surveying scenes of mayhem and trying to figure out where the next one will be.

Taken together, these three hombres are not quite the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but each man does carry some allegorical baggage. Mr. Jones’s craggy, vinegary warmth is well suited to the kind of righteous, decent lawman he has lately taken to portraying. Ed Tom Bell is almost continuous with the retired M.P. Mr. Jones played in Paul Haggis’s “In the Valley of Elah.” It is hard to do wisdom without pomposity, or probity without preening, but Mr. Jones manages with an aplomb that is downright thrilling.

Still, if “No Country for Old Men” were a simple face-off between the sheriff’s goodness and Chigurh’s undiluted evil, it would be a far stiffer, less entertaining picture. Llewelyn is the wild card — a good old boy who lives on the borderline between good luck and bad, between outlaw and solid citizen — and Mr. Brolin is the human center of the movie, the guy you root for and identify with even as the odds against him grow steeper by the minute.

And the minutes fly by, leaving behind some unsettling notions about the bloody, absurd intransigence of fate and the noble futility of human efforts to master it. Mostly, though, “No Country for Old Men” leaves behind the jangled, stunned sensation of having witnessed a ruthless application of craft.

Life ain’t fair. Be it the sudden, unexpected death of a loved one to your boss crapping all over your cushy job by dropping a ton of busy work on you at the last second on a Friday, it’s all just not fair. But it’s also the way things go and there’s scarcely any way to control it. Such is one of the many overwhelming feelings I got after having the wind knocked out of me by the Coen Brothers (by way of Cormac McCarthy) new, masterful film “No Country for Old Men.” The film is equal parts good versus evil mixed with serial killer on the loose. Combine that with heist/caper film antics and another part…slice of whacked out life and the end result? Let’s just say it’s all amazing. “No Country for Old Men” is exactly the kind of challenge film buffs will love if you’re sick of the by the numbers, multiplex drivel. And if you aren't yet sick of that crap, "No Country for Old Men" will still keep you enthralled for two hours.

Am I fawning? Yes I am. But rarely has a film got inside my head so quickly that the second it was over, I couldn’t wait to see it again. And I won’t lie, I find the Coen Brothers to be eternally frustrating in their mastery of the visual coupled with complete bumbling disregard for solid storytelling. If anyone can tell me what happens in “The Big Lebowski” after Donny (Steve Buscemi) dies you’ve either seen the film over twenty times or you have a photographic memory. My point being, I feel like the Coen’s often lose themselves in their little visual, idiosyncratic worlds and in the end the story they’re trying to tell falls short. However I am now forbidden to ever knock the Coen’s again, even if the steady hand of Cormac McCarthy’s novel guiding the way was the cause of “No Country for Old Men.” This film, the acting and the directing are all wicked and brilliant.

A plot summary is in order, but I’ll do so quickly as my rendition of events won’t come close to what’s really going on. Local yokel Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) is out hunting one day when he comes across a drug deal gone awry. Some poking around soon finds him in possession of a large sum of cash which he quickly absconds with and hides in his trailer. Meanwhile mass murderer Anton Chigurh (Bardem) escapes from custody for the umpteenth time and resumes his bloody tromp across the U.S., annihilating anything in his path. Literally anything in his path. Chigurh is like the embodiment of the worst kind of bully, the kind that if you look at him wrong or say even slightly the wrong thing, your days could be over. But even worse, Chigurh takes his killing a step further and lets “fate” decide. Rounding out the disjointed (but becoming more and more connected) trio of lead characters is idealistic small town sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Jones) who does a fine job as local law but when the shit hits the fan, he’ll be the first to tell you he may not be the best guy for the job.

Chigurh catches the scent of Llewelyn and gets after him for the cash. Meanwhile, Bell knows Llewelyn is in over his head (hell, they both are) and sets out to find him before Chigurh or a slew of hired Mexicans do. Yet as basic as this plot sounds, the film isn’t really “about” any of that. At once a classic embodiment of good versus evil, the film also toys with audience expectations and it’s totally refreshing, if not wholly frustrating. Here, the people with the answers are usually dead wrong. The heroes aren’t very heroic and the meanies are meaner than many you’ve seen in some time. Sam Peckinpah once lamented the fact that the violence he showed onscreen was interpreted as operatic and beautiful when he meant for it to be shocking and horrific. The same mistake cannot be made here as “No Country for Old Men” is bloody and disturbing. The violence is also jarring and, well, really violent. Every person who has griped about Eli Roth’s films or the “Saw” franchise is required to see this film. But there’s even more to be seen.

Brolin, Bardem and Jones are spot-on and not in the usual way. That is to say, Jones doesn’t do his curmudgeonly old man routine and Bardem is different than I’ve ever seen him before. His embodiment of Anton Chigurh is so existentially nihilistic, evil and devoid of hardly any human element I would have found myself wondering what the actor was thinking about while in character if I wasn’t so drawn in by the performance. Josh Brolin is also excellent as the everyman hero, a guy you sincerely want to see succeed but who also seems doomed to failure. Kudos also to Kelly Macdonald as Llewelyn’s faithful wife Carla who adds sprinkles of insight to each character, lending a human touch to the whole affair.

But my strongest praise is saved for Joel and Ethan Coen who have taken a storyline from a writer as difficult to adapt as Bret Easton Ellis or Kurt Vonnegut and truly brought his words to life. Fans of the book will be floored by the near literal translation, but will also be blindsided by the Coen Brothers vision onscreen. They seem to make every element of the book come to life while also incorporating many of their signature touches along the way. “No Country for Old Men” is a return to form for the Coen Brothers and, while I feel the film will annoy and frustrate the masses, it will be looked back upon as one of the truly great movies of the first part of this new decade.

"Hold still"—it's what the hunters say to the hunted in the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men.
The first time we hear it, it's the out-of-work Vietnam vet Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) whispering optimistically to the antelope he spies through his rifle sight while perched on the crest of a West Texas ridge. A bit later, it's the steely assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) instructing the terrified motorist to whose skull he has just placed the lethal end of a pressurized cattle gun. Already by that point, not very far into the film, we know that one stands in Chigurh's way at one's usually immediate peril. In an early scene, we've seen this tall, saucer-eyed man with the Cousin Itt haircut and indeterminate accent escape from police custody by drawing a naive deputy sheriff into a choke-hold pas de deux that turns the precinct's linoleum floor into an abstract frieze of scuff marks and sinew.

"Hold still" is also something that the Coen Brothers seem to be saying to the audience throughout No Country for Old Men, which is the most measured, classical film of their 23-year career, and maybe the best. Coming on the heels of the shrill, mannered Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, you'd scarcely have thought them capable of it. There are echoes of earlier Coen films here—in the Texas setting (Blood Simple) and the idea of simple, small-town folk caught up in criminal business (Fargo). But unlike the loquacious eccentrics that the Coens have placed at the center of most of their movies, the characters in No Country for Old Men are stoic, solitary figures who feel most at home in desolate landscapes, alone but for their fellow predators. And we become one with them, seeing and (especially) hearing things as they do—subtle anomalies in the atmosphere and terrain, like the faint jangling of keys in an abandoned vehicle in a desert clearing where bad men have recently been engaging in bad business. It is to this grisly scene—a drug deal gone awry—that Chigurh journeys in search of a briefcase piled high with cash (two million in 1980 dollars). But Moss has been there first, and he left just enough of a scent for Chigurh to track.

Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men is, for most of its running time, a cleverly triangulated cat-and-mouse pursuit in which Chigurh stays a few short paces behind Moss, while the sheriff, Ed Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), closes in on them both. And if Chigurh is the movie's phantom bogeyman, then Bell is its moral compass, albeit one with its needle pointing straight to hell. A onetime believer in the forces of law and order, he has been worn down by what he sees on his beat and reads in the newspapers and has the look of a man searching for salvation in a godless world. Whether the good old days Bell pines for—the one where evil had a more easily recognizable face—ever existed is another matter entirely, one No Country for Old Men doesn't endeavor to resolve.

The mechanics of No Country for Old Men recall those of a vintage film noir—as gripping and mordantly funny a treatise on the corrosive power of greed as The Killing and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre were before it. In terms of filmmaking and storytelling craft, it is a work destined to be studied in film schools for generations to come, from the threatening beauty of cinematographer Roger Deakins's O'Keeffe-like images to what is surely the most pulse-raising scene of motel-room suspense since Marion Crane took her fateful shower. There isn't a moment here that feels false, less than fully considered, or outside of the Coens' control. (Nor does the movie ever feel studied and inert in the way movies so carefully planned and executed sometimes can.) Then there is Bardem, whose Chigurh is so fully realized psychologically and physically that his every gesture bristles with creepy fascination, whether he's baiting an unsuspecting gas-station attendant into a life-or-death coin toss or merely sidestepping the encroaching puddle of blood he's created on a hotel-room floor.

It's easy to imagine how the Coens, whose Achilles' heel has always been their predilection for smug irony and easy caricature, might have turned McCarthy's taciturn Texans into simplistic western-mythos archetypes: the amoral criminal, the righteous peacekeeper, and the naive but basically good-hearted rube in over his head. Instead, they've made a film of great, enveloping gravitas, in which words like "hero" and "villain" carry ever less weight the deeper we follow the characters into their desperate journeys. Like McCarthy, the Coens are markedly less interested in who (if anyone) gets away with the loot than in the primal forces that urge the characters forward. "They slaughter cattle a lot different these days," sighs a weary Bell late in the film. But slaughter them they still do, and in the end, everyone in No Country for Old Men is both hunter and hunted, members of some endangered species trying to forestall their extinction. Even Anton Chigurh, it turns out, bleeds when wounded

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