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CLASSICS: No Country for Old Men (2007) ****

December 19, 2010

written by: Joel & Ethan Coen, from the novel by Cormac McCarthy
produced by: Joel & Ethan Coen, Scott Rudin
directed by: Joel & Ethan Coen
rated R (for strong graphic violence and some language)
122 min.
U.S. release date: November 9, 2007
DVD & Bluray release date: March 11, 2008 (3-disc Special Edition with Digital Copy was released on DVD and Blu-Ray on April 7, 2009)
This movie still haunts me. I saw it back on November 23rd at 11:05am and I’m still thinking about it. I knew it would be great going in but as I left the theatre that early afternoon, I had no idea how to approach a review. Sometimes a movie is so good that you just want to tell people “Just go see it and see for yourself” because you feel that any words you have to promote the film wouldn’t do it justice. I feel that way with this film and I also feel I don’t want to give too much away. By now, many have seen this film and it has deservedly made its way to several year-end top ten lists. It’s complete with all the qualities a classic Coen brothers has: a great script with intelligent and witty dialogue, amazing cinematography, a perfect cast and layered themes. It’s a movie I want to see again, maybe in the theatre but certainly on DVD where I can treat it like some great archaeological find and discover uncovered nuances.  
The movie feels and at times looks like a western, but it is not. It has the qualities and characters of one but it is set in the late 1970’s, possibly early 80’s, primarily in West Texas. The vast open desert prairie of the Lone Star state is a character all on its own here. As the film opens, we’re introduced to the voice (who I feel is) the main character, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (the great Tommy Lee Jones, in his second amazing performance of 2007) with his tired, reflective voice serving as narrator. He’s telling us a story about an arrest he made a while back, an arrest to this day he doesn’t fully understand. There’s an emptiness in his voice as we’re shown the desolate Texas landscape with its farmland and windmills. There’s also confusion which sets the tone for what violent actions we will see and the results of those violent acts Bell will come across.
The tone of the film then takes an ominous turn as we’re introduced to a character everyone is declaring the most evil and violent presence cinema has ever seen. While I dunno if I can agree with that, I have to say that Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is certainly one of the most unnerving and original characters I have ever seen. Right away, he’s revealed to be a killer, a calm unstoppable force that is motivated and sustained by his own deranged code.
He often decides the fate of those he encounters by the flip of a coin, which make for some of the most memorably unsettling scenes ever filmed. There’s such uneasiness surrounding the atmosphere that Chigurh occupies wherever he goes that so captivating you can’t take your eyes off him but you wish you could.
The plot of the film slowly and carefully revolves around an attache case of money. While out in the Texas desert hunting deer, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin, another guy having a great year) happens upon the remnants of a drug deal gone bad. He finds $2 million in cash that was intended to be the buy money and makes a rash decision to take it home, leaving the lone survivor of the bloodbath to die on his own. Feeling guilty, he returns to the scene in the middle of the night, only to be spotted by bad guys who want their money back. Barely escaping alive, Llewellyn sends his wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) off to her mother’s and goes on the run with the money. Moss is a stubborn Vietnam vet who sees this as an opportunity to totally change their lives and figures he can evade his pursuers until they grow tired and quit. 
What he doesn’t know is that his pursuer is a one-stop death machine who doesn’t know the words tired or quit. Chigurh is hired to track Moss and get the money, what he does to anyone he encounters along the way is totally up to him. Thus his killing spree begins before he even gets to the mess in the desert, so Llewellyn is just going to be another notch in his belt. The simple act of filling up his stolen car with gas is like an existential exercise in flexing his muscles. There is nothing Chigurh (pronounced Shu-gur) does that doesn’t end with blood, whether it’s his own or someone else.
Soon enough, the film turns into a entangled chase picture. Chigurh is on the trail of Moss, the money men and drug dealers team up to chase them both, and Jones is scratching his head trying to keep up with all three. There’s even a bounty hunter Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), familiar with Chigurh, who tries to persuade Moss to give it up. Along their journey both Moss and Chigurh encounter some of the standard, quirky characters that have becomes a Coen brothers staple. When these all characters do catch up with one another at different times in the picture, the results are unexpected and harrowing. Each twist of the plot strides in on a very comfortable (and uncomfortable) gait. The best thing the Coens is not rush it when it doesn’t need to be rushed, and they never inject a scene with an inflated sense of peril. The danger is always evident, there is nothing forced cuz there is time enough to get where they are all going.
The irony in all this thing about the pacing of this story is that ultimately, despite the lack of panic, time is running out. It’s both a eulogy for a particular way of life and a lament for dying values. Chigurh represents the senseless, unstoppable and increasing violence that is in the world today, he’s a force of nature remiss of any moral code. He comes seemingly out of nowhere with no backstory (none is really needed) and it his pace it would appear he represents the future. He twice lets his victims gamble on their life with his flippant coin toss that determines their fate by. The other two characters may also be two sides of the same coin. Sheriff Bell is heads, a thinker who follows a code and predetermined ideas, whereas Moss is tails, running on instinct, making choices that his counterpart would never make.
With all the dead bodies that are left in the wake of these men, the most devastating part of this film has really nothing to do with blood, guns, or carnage. Hell, most of the more surprising bends in that road (and there are several near the end) eschew those elements altogether. What lingers most is the passage of time, in our awareness of it, and in the inevitability of the countdown. That’s what’s so riveting. You know it’s only a matter of time and it’s time you’re trying to hold onto but you know it’s running out. You can’t stop it by pure stubborn action, not even by the inclination of chance. Maybe it’s better to be like Moss and try to remain ignorant of what lies ahead, because when it comes down to it, there is no comfort in acceptance. It’s an excellent achievement for all of this to be conveyed in a motion picture and the Coen brothers deliver it excellently.
Back to the heart of the film though, some may feel Jones is once again channeling the same role he’s known for, but it’s been a long time since he’s been this good. Now, I feel his performance in Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah” was just as good, maybe better, but he does something great here. He takes this somewhat minor role of Sheriff Bell, one that could have been just another display of his good-humored cynicism and corn-fed homilies and makes it the heart of the film. It’s as if he rightly sensed that Bell would be the true emotional center of McCarthy’s story, the spiritual symbol of its deeper themes.
I’ve heard from friends who have liked this film immensely for some of the same reasons I do and also from some who have left appreciating it but ultimately somewhat disappointed. I think those who are disappointed miss out on the themes here, which are essentially in the title and deal with Jone’s character. He cannot understand the violence all around him much less how to enforce law in such a world. He feels like an old man in a foreign world, hence the title. The fact that he doesn’t come out on top as the typical successful hero makes his character all the more attractive.
As a result, Jones sheds the skin of easy comfort that he’s worn through most of his recent films and let’s his soul back out. Just as the Coen brothers appear to be going back to the feel of their earlier work (Blood Simple, Fargo) while blazing new trails for themselves, dropping their old tricks for serious storytelling, so Jones seems to have wearied of his  image and has decided to put that weariness on film. This weary tone can also be felt through two Coen veterans: cinematographer Roger Deakin’s and composer Carter Burwell, both provide a rich yet calculated minimalism to the film. If this movie would’ve come out last March I still think it would be weighing heavy on my mind. It still would’ve been included on many best of 2007 lists and for a film to have such an impact is a rare treasure.
(review originally written on January 8, 2008)
CLASSICS is a Keeping It Reel feature that sheds light on past and present films which are considering “classics” by Paul and David. Some are award-winners while others could be seldom seen films that demand your attention.


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