19 November 2007

No Country for Old Men

Full credits from IMDb
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Written & Directed by: Joel & Ethan Coen

Grade: A

The Bros. Coen's No Country For Old Men opens with a series of shots of the West Texas landscape. Cinematographer Roger Deakins fills the screen, primarily, with the land, leaving very little visible sky, signaling to the audience that the story you're about to see is not one of heavenly redemption but one of earthly sin, a story set in a violence-ridden world devoid of any divine interaction, let alone intervention. From frame one, the directors make it clear that whatever's about to happen, it's not going to end well.

The bloodletting begins moments into the very first reel, in which we see the film's supervillain, Javier Bardem, kill the film's first victim, a sheriff's deputy—the first thing to go in this depraved world is, of course, the order of law—in a strangling struggle with, brushed across his face, the terrifying look of a clown having a perverse orgasm. Bardem, a merciless killer or, as the film calls him, "the ultimate bad-ass", plays every one of his scenes with a sense of unflappable menace, countered by a watery-eyed gaze of profound feeling that elevates his assassin extraordinaire beyond a stiff Frankenstein of a sociopath.

In the scene following the handcuffed garroting, Bardem kills a motorist with his preferred method of murder: a jolt from an air gun, ordinarily used to slaughter cattle, to the forehead. (Conveniently, he also uses it to open locks.) Bardem the manhunter is then paralleled to Josh Brolin the antelope hunter; introduced setting up a shot on the desert plains, the Coens foreshadow the bloodshed and role reversal (hunter to hunted) about to befall him. The catalyst in this disastrous transformation is the suitcase full of hundred dollar bills in $10,000 stacks that Brolin stumbles across, while hunting, in a gory milieu of dead men and dead dogs (and a trunk full of brown heroin that Brolin wisely lets be.) But by taking the cash, he gets bounty-hunter Bardem on his trail and spends the rest of the film running across Texas trying to lose him, with hangdog sheriff Tommy Lee Jones, with a wit as dry as the surrounding desert brush, one step behind them at all times, bearing witness to the destruction they've produced.

No Country for Old Men works as a perfectly-executed piece of genre fiction, suspenseful and frightening, just like its source novel by Cormac McCarthy, which it smartly follows almost to the letter, excising only some extraneous characters to maintain the script's disciplined focus. The film's greatest asset, though, is that the Coens have thankfully dropped their propensity for eccentricity, which has always been their Achilles' Heel as filmmakers. No Country for Old Men has no goofy central or ancillary characters; front and center, there are only serious actors at the top of their games while the film's margins are filled-in by authentic Texans. (Beth Grant's turn as Brolin's mother-in-law is the only exception, but her appearance is so brief that it's easily forgiveable.) The Coens mercifully, by and large, don't portray the film's Texans as quirky and exotic goofballs as they did to the Midwesterners in Fargo or the Southerners in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

No Country for Old Men is an action film both measured and grave, opening as a Jim Thompson-esque crime saga set on the Texan sands, but as it moves along the film acquires an allegorical depth, raising questions about the state of American culture and morality as it follows a steady stream of blood that's all been spilled over a few million dollars. "It's all goddam money," an El Paso sheriff notes. The Coens take McCarthy's grumpy red-state gripes, like the one about kids with green hair, with a grain of salt, but nevertheless stay to true to his overarching theme: the violence that Jones is seeing, that causes him to declare, "I feel overwhelmed", isn't novel—it may be a bit gruesome, as Bardem kills people as though they're cows, for Pete's sake, but certainly not moreso than the violence of Blood Meridian—just another iteration of the frontier violence that harkens back to the old days of Indian battles. (And, if you follow the logic, all the way back to the American revolution.) "What you got ain't nothing new," Jones' uncle, Barry Corbin, tells him. "This country's hard on people." America is a country founded on violence that has never stopped fighting, whether against the elements or, as is more common, one another.


Clayton L. White said...

The review I've been waiting to read. Can't wait to see it.

Expectations are very, very high, to say the least.

james flames said...

psyched to see this one. even my father left me a message saying he highly recommends it. then he ended the message by saying "peace out." hmmmm.

Gerry Mandel said...

From the very first frame of Texas landscape, to the final fade to black, my eyes never left the screen, my mind never wandered. This is one film that shows just how great cinema can be. Just don't expect the expected. 'Nuff said... what are you waiting for?

Anonymous said...

henry, great write-up!

The one eccentricity in the film - Bardem's characters' use of the air gun as a tool of the assassin - is played dead straight, and doesn't come across as a gimmick at all (I assume it's true to the book as well). And I think you nailed the theme by quoting the line uttered by the sheriff's uncle: "This country's hard on people." Perhaps the overarching theme of both the film and book is this simple truism - but this sentiment plays itself out in hundreds of nasty ways throughout this Texas, and elsewhere.