Monday, January 07, 2008

No Country for Old Men / **** (R)

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell: Tommy Lee Jones
Anton Chigurh: Javier Bardem
Llewelyn Moss: Josh Brolin
Carla Jean Moss: Kelly Macdonald
Carson Wells: Woody Harrelson

Miramax Films and Paramount Vantage present a film written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. Running time: 122 min. Rated R (for strong graphic violence and some language).

In the opening moments of Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of novelist Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men,” you hear the rough-edged voice of Tommy Lee Jones explaining what it meant to be a Texas sheriff in the “old days.” He takes great pride in the fact that both he and his father sheriffed towns of their own at the same time, and he mentions that some of the “old timers” didn’t even have to wear guns. His voice is familiar and comforting. His matter-of-fact delivery almost hides the unique poetry of a yarn spun by a man wise only in what he knows but with the particular flavor of a great playwright. It tastes good to hear his words.

Then you see the actions of a bad man. He is Anton Chigurh (sounds almost like “sugar”), and you can tell he is a killer just by looking at him. This fact is undisputable long before you hear the cold chill of his subtly accented baritone voice. When he kills a sheriff’s deputy on the floor of a police station, you’re reminded of how the Coen Brothers can capture the most unique images and make them seem as natural as the rising sun. But other than this, you will barely even notice that you are watching a film at all. For the next two hours you are transported entirely into the Coen Brothers’ world, where the characters and situations are as unique as a fingerprint and yet as real as the feel of your bed covers as you pull them up each morning, convincing yourself that you are just keeping warm instead of delaying the inevitability getting up and starting the day.

Josh Brolin plays Llewelyn Moss, a man who stumbles onto the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad and quite consciously convinces himself that taking a satchel full of money from the scene is an act he can get away with. You see the events unfold naturally, not quite knowing at first what connects Moss to the sheriff and the killer. Crime and punishment surely factor into it, but there aren’t the pressures of typical story structure bearing down on the plot. Expectations are elminated and you’re allowed to just observe what happens, never thinking there is anything to be done to stop these events from unfolding.

Sure, you can make guesses as to who might end up killing who and how, but you never once feel anything must or even might play out according to your own predictions. This makes Jones’s sheriff the closest to you as you evaluate what you are seeing like a police officer would, trying to make some sense of it even though you’ve already seen who dunnit and how. It is the why that is elusive and yet just as important as the how. There are times when you know exactly how things are going to go down because the Coen’s take their time, but even then the events fascinate you.

In some ways you are like the killer Chigurh because the deliberate pace of the film lets you observe so dispassionately you can relate to his simple, if immoral, code. And then sudden rationality slams into you like an unseen car at an intersection, and you realize any philosophy, let alone any action, can be rationalized. This makes it easy to understand Llewelyn’s ill-advised actions. He finds the satchel, tries to be safe about it and is only taking it from immoral people anyway. That gives him as much right to it as anyone. Plus Llewelyn is the guy who can stir your blood. He carries all your anxiety and tension. When he is being chased by a pit bull, you are telling him to fire his weapon long before he’s able to.

Visually you witness a beautiful and stark Texas landscape, a world where borders between two countries are insignificant. Llewelyn can’t escape from his destiny or his plain dumb luck. There is no difference between the two here. Yet the beauty of the world is still striking. Is life this dreary and bright at once? It is fairly humorless, but not without its ironies. And you realize it is the codes we live by that define our lives while the beautiful world around merely observes.

There is commentary about our world that can be drawn from the story of these men, but much more interesting is the story itself and the way it unfolds. There is a sense here that nothing matters. Certainly the sheriff’s conclusions bring him at least half way to that sentiment, although the efforts are important. Somehow, though, this brand of nihilism never becomes overly oppressive. And you know that there are skills in spinning a yarn that don’t necessarily involve placing the audience directly in the action, but can be achieved detached from the story with careful management of images, pacing, character development and a story that doesn’t impose itself upon its individual elements. This is filmmaking at its finest.

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