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The Coen Brothers get serious

A review of No Country for Old Men

Published: December 7, 2007
Section: Arts, Etc.


120707dc3.jpgNo Country for Old Men, the latest movie from the enormously talented Coen Brothers, opens over a lingering view of the empty West Texas desert. This shot is a fitting start for what turns out to be the most naturalistic film the Coen Brothers have ever done. With No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers have created an instant classic, a meditation on violence and death, and the randomness of fate.

The film follows the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad in the desert. A local man, Llewelyn Moss (played with a steely resolve by Josh Brolin), stumbles upon the site of the deal and a satchel containing 2 million dollars in cash. He decides to take the money for himself and run, setting off a chain of events that will not only affect Moss’ life but the lives of many others as well.

In the cat-and-mouse game that ensues, Moss is hunted down by nearly-psychopathic and supremely deadly assassin, Anton Chigurh, the man hired to retrieve the money.

The Coen Brothers are known for their farcical work and genre send-ups. Even Fargo, their Oscar-winning murder thriller, is punctuated by moments of sublime humor and those amazing Minnesota accents. However, the Coen Brothers have never taken a movie as seriously as they have this one. No Country for Old Men is a tense film, adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel, with well executed chase sequences and moments of sobering violence.

However, if you are looking for anything in the vein of a Die Hard-style movie, this is not the film. This movie is about the all too real consequences of violence and reckless, selfish acts. The movie explores the notion that no act of this sort can be tied up easily. There is always collateral damage. Someone always gets hurt, and it’s not necessarily the bad guy.

The movie moves in a foreboding and literate manner, with moments of subtle and brilliant foreshadowing, and small scenes sprinkled about that effectively lend depth to the film’s various characters.

The Coen brothers are experts at crafting tension as the assassin Chigurh stalks his prey, building tension by filming many of these sequences from the perspective of the hunted, as opposed to the hunter. They also use a minimalistic score, allowing natural sounds and pure silence to add to the mood of the scene.

All this adds up to a compellingly put together movie. This movie plays with the audience’s expectations, providing several unexpected twists and turns. This is reflected in the camera work, where the Coens use several sequences to toy with what you anticipate the next shot will be and turn that expectation upside down.

The acting in No Country for Old Men matches the direction in its across-the-board brilliance. Josh Brolin, in one of his first particularly prominent roles, is excellent as the tough everyman Moss. His character is quiet but determined. He is a selfish man, putting himself and others at risk through taking the money, but at the same time shows a compassionate side (which fittingly manages to get him in even more trouble). Brolin plays this rugged insolence very well.

Tommy Lee Jones plays Ed Tom Bell, the veteran sheriff desperately trying to protect Moss from those who hunt him. Jones lends his usual depth and quiet charisma to the role, and it is through him that much of the movie’s message is conveyed. Jones is the heart and soul of this film.

However, the standout performance of No Country for Old Men is that of Javier Bardem, who plays assassin Chigurh. A man some would mistake for a psychopath, Chigurh is ruthless, but has his own unique principles (when he makes a promise – he carries through on his word, no matter what). Chigurh, despite a pasty face and one of the most unflatteringly strange haircuts ever, is unbeatable. The film describes him alternately as a ghost, the bubonic plague, and the ultimate badass. He is unstoppable, and impervious to reason.

However, as the movie explores the line between fate and chance, Chigurh offers his victims one seeming respite: a coin toss. Watching the various characters in No Country for Old Men react to the proposition of a coin toss for their lives is among the most compelling cinema moments in recent memory. He waves his victims’ deaths in their faces, just to see how they deal with it. Chigurh will stick with you.

The Coen Brothers have created a remarkable film that plays at its own pace, with unique characters and perfectly realized themes, made all the more powerful by the brilliant and chilling third act, which turns the entire film (and genre, for that matter) on its head, turning this excellent story into something completely unique and all the more influential. This is a Coen Brothers film that exceeds genre exercise and wonderful composition: it has something to say. This is, hands-down, the best film of the year and to miss it would be real shame.