Thursday, December 13, 2007

No Country For Old Men

I saw this film over a month ago, and despite computer problems, have found it difficult to put into words how to sum up one of the finest cinematic experiences I've had at the movies, period. I feel almost intimidated to write about such a film that is so tight and technically magnificent-- a recent second made it even more so. This film, arguably the best two hours the brothers Coen have put upon film, is so precise and delicate, with writing and acting that's so profound and beautifully cobbled from Cormac McCarthy's novel, it seems almost pointless to go on. After a string of forgettable, nondescript (a word I never thought would be adequate for the Coen Brothers)-- Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers-- they return with a darker, deeper, quietly poetic, sharply funny and observed morality thriller that reinforces that great movies can still get made and artistic visions can still come about without compromise. Simply said, No Country For Old Men, without getting all hyperbole about it, is a masterpiece, a film that will likely be studied in film schools for generations to come, analyzing the tight structure, methodical and deeply committed acting from Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, and Kelly MacDonald, visual astuteness, courtesy of artisan cinematographer Roger Deakins, and the suspense and magic Ethan and Joel Coen bring to screen.
The film opens with the emergence of Anton Chigruh (Javier Bardem), who from the start we can tell is not a very nice man. He's arrested, and while waiting in a chair, quietly focused, handcuffed, he slowly moves toward the arresting officer and chokes him with all his might, his face staying perfectly still and the policeman screams and quickly expires-- he's a free man again. From this opening scene, Bardem commands the screen, utterly focused and petrifying in one of the scariest portrayals of cinematic sociopathy ever. The sight of him flipping a coin has haunted my dreams ever sense. The film may be but a month old, but his Chigruh, with the bob haircut and indiscriminate accent, belongs in the pantheons of screen baddies alongside Anthony Hopkins's Hannibal Leckter and Anthony Perkin's Norman Bates. And so No Country begins.

But there's more, so much more-- there's also another man, one not nearly as lethal as Chigruh, but one with a few loose morals. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin, in far and away the best performance of his career) stumbles upon a site of a bunch cars and dead people surrounding, and also a big suitcase stuffed with cash from a drug deal gone horribly, hideously wrong. He, not a bad guy, just not a very bright one, does what many would probably do and runs off with it back to his trailer to his lovely, adoring wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald), who suspects trouble from the start. Brolin, personally an actor I've never particularly cared for, rises to the occasion here giving a physical and vulnerable performance that anchors the movie, mostly without the benefit of dialogue.

As one would know it Chigruh and Moss become linked, and a chase begins, it's Chigruh money and some small-town hick named Llewelyn is no match for the masterful demonic sadism of a man like Chigruh. Enter Sheriff Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who's investigating the drug massacre and Chigruh. Bell, whose father was a sheriff as well, is about at the end of the tenure, he presumes, and reflects on the times and his place in the new world of new criminals like Chigruh. It's a deeply soulful, sardonic, and quietly commanding performance, that somehow brings a sense of affection to a film that's very somber and dark.

There's a lot of violence in No Country For Old Men, but of a different quality than the ironic sort in Fargo and Blood Simple-- here it's raw and far more intense. There's a chase sequence between Chigruh and Moss that starts in a dank hotel room and ends several streets away in old school shootout, not unlike the westerns of yore. What the Coens (and Deakins) achieve in sound and light in this meticulous and wondrous sequence is akin to some of the best movie moments I've ever seen. And that's the thing about this exceptional film is that there are so many more of that nature. Far raw emotion, the scene between Carla Jean and Chigruh is almost unbearable to watch, even though no actual violence takes place. MacDonald, a native Scot, pioneering a West Texan accent to a faultless degree turns the screws on your typical suffering wife role and carries the little heart and bundle of hope in this otherwise grim world.

Like Pulp Fiction and A History of Violence, No Country For Old Men is a film so perfectly constructed, so artistically challenging, even beautiful in it's grimness, it quietly rejuvenates one attitudes of modern filmmaking and lulls you into storytelling that's scary and unsettling, but satisfying that you don't realize the effect it's had on you until days, maybe even weeks later, and jolts your enthusiasm for the craft of fine, adult pieces of art. And, of course, from the brothers Coen, conductors of magic, once again. A

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