Tuesday, March 11, 2008

No Country For Old Men - out today. Best movie of the Millenium. (**********10/10)

The Coen Brothers have collaborated on twelve films in their illustrious career. There have been some interesting misses (The Ladykillers, The Man Who Wasn’t There) and some terrific movies (The Hudsucker Proxy, Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou?) And there have been three absolute classics. They are Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, and now No Country For Old Men. This is an absolutely brilliant film, taken very literally from Cormac McCarthy’s absolutely brilliant novel. This may well be the best movie the Coens have done, and that’s saying a lot - Fargo was the best film of the 1990s.

Tommy Lee Jones plays sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a backwoods country sheriff who is smart and determined, but he is long on wisdom and short on solutions. There is a slight echo of Frances McDormand’s character in Fargo, an officer of the law who would seem less than brilliant to those around them, yet we the audience get to see inside their head a little more and we can see that their outward appearance is deceptive, and that they are in fact very intelligent. He is the centre of the movie, but, this movie is not about Jones. Javier Bardem gives one of the creepiest performances in recent memory as a maniacal killer named Anton Chigurh. He has a strange, Beatles-type moptop haircut, and he is cold, emotionless, and single-minded. His performance in this movie is as scary as any turned in by the other masters of the creepy of this generation - the Christopher Walkens and John Malkoviches of the world. But this movie is not about Bardem.
Josh Brolin is the main character in the movie, Llewellyn Moss, a man who stumbles across the aftermath of a bloody shootout in the desert. There are bodies everywhere, and two trucks still sitting in the middle of the desert. Brolin finds massive amounts of heroin, which he leaves there, dozens of guns, some of which he takes, and two million dollars. He takes all of that. His performance is also single-minded in the film, he is a good ol’ boy, a tough Vietnam veteran who believes he can take on anyone and anything. His undoing proves to be a seemingly unnecessary act of kindness - he goes back to the site of the carnage to bring water to the one man who is still clinging to life. Why he does this is simply an extension of his character. He is that determined, that headstrong, and that committed to whatever it is he is doing. And in this case, he is doing what he believes is the right thing. But, this movie is also not about him.

This movie is about No Country For Old Men. That is, it is about the country. The end of the country and world that we all know, and the presentation to us of a world that is completely alien to us. You could call the film a western, in that it takes place in the west. Desert scenes and cowboy hats and gunfights and strong characters who come to a head with each other at various points in the movie. You could call it a thriller, in that the bad guy might get the good guys, the good guys might get away, there are chases and battles and guns and violence and tense moment after tense moment. It could almost be considered a black comedy, with certain scenes having a bizarre comic effectiveness. I’m not even sure if it was intentional or not, but in particular one scene where Bardem blows up a car outside the pharmacy. You may have seen it in the trailers. The car blows up, and the glass window outside shatters, the pharmacy descends into chaos, and people begin running everywhere in a panic. Bardem, on the other hand, just keeps walking. Straight toward the back, no reaction at all, totally unconcerned with the chaos, and determined to complete his task. It comes off as something out of Buster Keaton, the stone-faced man who doesn’t know he should be ducking for cover because he is too preoccupied with whatever is going on in his head. And in many ways, No Country For Old Men could qualify as a horror movie as well, thanks mostly to Bardem. He moves slowly, purposefully, and relentlessly toward the man he means to kill, almost like Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees.

Bardem’s portrayal of the psychopathic killer is bone-chilling and fantastic, but the movie doesn’t really delve into him at all. It’s treatment of Chigurh is almost clinical, in that we watch his evil acts with more of a sense of dispassionate astonishment than a sense of moral outrage. We are just amazed that someone like this could exist in our world. His scene with an old man in a gas station is one of the most tense in recent memory, and contains some of the best dialogue in the Coen’s repertoire. Woody Harrelson makes a brief appearance as a man sent after Chigurh by his bosses, and his time on screen is almost anecdotal as well. In the end, we don’t really get to know any of the characters, even Brolin. There is no character development to speak of, it’s just a bunch of stuff that happens. And the one character we do get to know a little, Tommy Lee Jones, is pretty well the same man at the end of the film that he was in the beginning. His voice-over to open the movie is one of the best I’ve heard since Morgan Freeman’s in the Shawshank Redemption.

Also anecdotal are Stephen Root as a crime boss, Ana Reader as a woman by a pool in a hotel, and Kelly MacDonald as Brolin’s wife. In the book, Reader’s character has a much larger part, but the end for her is the same. MacDonald is great in her small amount of screen time, and her final confrontation with Chigurh is as chilling a moment as any I’ve seen. The photography of the country is unbelievable, making that scenery itself a character in the film, just like the Coen’s previous best work, Fargo. The movie deals with many moral questions without delivering answers. The choices men make, the questionable morality of each character, the inevitability of fate, and ruminates endlessly on human nature. Sometimes this rumination comes directly from Jones’ words, other times out of the camera as we are left to ponder the consequences of the previous scene while the next one begins to play out. No Country For Old Men is bleak, entertaining, and virtually flawless. Cormac McCarthy wrote a tremendous novel, which was translated into a brilliant screenplay, which was then transformed into an absolute genius movie. To say something is as good as Fargo is something I might have considered ridiculous five years ago. No Country For Old Men is as good as Fargo. And therefore it is better than any other movie of the past ten years. Rent it, buy it, whatever. Just do it now.

1 comment:

  1. i appreciate the unassuming cleverness of this movie... what happens next is always unexpected and yet it never goes "over the top." well done indeed.

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