No Country for Old Men (review)

A Simple Plan

Here’s the thing about Joel and Ethan Coen: they can make anything, absolutely anything, intensely profound and deeply weird — and weirdly deep — and cruelly magnificent all at the same time. Skip back past their recent fluff — not that Intolerable Cruelty and especially O Brother, Where Art Thou? are not as sublime as fluff gets — and recall how Fargo and Miller’s Crossing and Blood Simple simply Blew. Your. Mind. with the unfathomable depths of their indifferent visual beauty and the wide-open expanses of their psychological intuition. Recall how it felt to walk right along a knife edge of understated terror and unexpected humor and modern noir nonchalance.

The Coens are a force of nature, and thank god for them, for reminding us of the spellbinding awesomeness of film to fill you up and knock you down and wrap up the immeasurable strangeness of life in neat, messy packages. Every single one of their movies is the kind of movie that made you fall in love with movies, and each of their films can be defined through the one character at its center who is a force of nature him- or herself. (The Coens pull this off in such a way that you’d think that must be the definition of any movie.) And no Coen human low-pressure system yet has been anything like the nightmare of centered psychosis that is Javier Bardem’s (The Sea Inside, Collateral) Anton Chigurh.

He’s a killer — a hired killer, maybe, or just a madly dedicated one. He stalks into Coens’ big empty flat vastness of West Texas on a mission: to retrieve the suitcase full of money — about $2 millions’ worth — from whoever spirited it away from the desert drug deal that went bad. He’s a machine, as cold and calculating as the Terminator but worse: flickers of sympathy or humanity or something decent tease us. Or, no: not flickers of humanity but of a commitment to his own heartless set of rules, to a capriciousness that is its own weird kind of honor. He is perfectly happy to decide who will live and who will die by his hand on the toss of a coin. Chigurh is the embodiment of the randomness of violence, the unpredictability of the universe in dealing out death, and he haunts this desolate landscape like an malevolent shade.

It’s a landscape not just physical — the Coens’ long, silent takes of cold wind blowing through desert sagebrush are like something out of a forgotten Andrew Wyeth painting — but emotional, too, in an reserved male way. The man Chigurh is after is Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin: American Gangster, Grindhouse: Planet Terror), not the brightest bulb but far from the dimmest, too: he can’t resist the lure of all that money, which he stumbled across purely by accident, but neither can he resist the call of his conscience to do something he should have done before he left the scene of the crime (his own and others’), which is what allows Chigurh to pick up his tail. So now Moss is on the run, trying to draw Chigurh away from his wife (Kelly Macdonald: Nanny McPhee, Finding Neverland); two steps behind is county sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones: A Prairie Home Companion, Man of the House), who’s appalled by all the death and destruction he’s seeing in the wake of whomever it is he’s chasing.

It’s all so simple, really: a simple story simply told. It’s in the how that the Coens show their mastery as perhaps the finest pure storytellers working in film today. Give this same script to, oh, John McTiernan or Edgar Wright, and you’d get a stylish action movie out of it. In the hands of the Coens, it is a literary masterpiece about the flips sides of perseverance, and about a cultural shift that’s barely noticed until it’s past. The year is 1980, at the beginning of the “war on drugs,” when the dealers and the smugglers started getting desperate and even more dangerous, and saw no reason not to raise the stakes as high as they could go: Chigurh is their weapon. And while he doesn’t know it as the film opens, Bell is the old man this country is no longer for — we meet him through a stunningly effective voiceover at the beginning of the movie in which he shakes his head in wonder at the “old-timer” sheriffs of Texas who refuse to even carry a gun, but he is already as obsolete, temperamentally if not strategically, as those relics from a era lost and never to be refound.

If Bardem is the whirlwind here, Jones is the still eye of the storm, the calm axis around which horrors eddy and the world changes — this is Jones’s finest performance ever as he, the actor, teeters along a tightrope the character doesn’t even know he’s walking. But all the most riveting, most tense moments in No Country for Old Men are like that: quiet, uncomplicated, but fraught with dangers sensed and unsensed.

Oscars Best Picture 2007

previous Best Picture:
2006: The Departed
next Best Picture:
2008: Slumdog Millionaire

go> the complete list of Oscar-winning Best Pictures

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