Friday, April 13, 2018

No Country for Old Men (2007)

USA, 122 minutes
Directors/editors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Cormac McCarthy
Photography: Roger Deakins
Music: Carter Burwell
Cast: Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, Kelly MacDonald, Tess Harper, Stephen Root, Garret Dillahunt, Beth Grant, Kathy Lamkiri

It's hard to know what to do with the Coen brothers' 14th or so film, except to look at it and peel back layers. Based on a literary property of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, who of course is on the short list of most highly regarded living authors, it seems to throw a wall of unceasing violence in your face practically from start to finish. You may be too shocked from a first viewing ever to look again, but if you do you're likely to see something else entirely. On one of the DVD featurettes, people try to name the genre. Everyone lands on horror but no one thinks the label fits exactly. Other types mentioned include noir, period piece, road movie, crime, chase, western, even comedy. The latter was from Tommy Lee Jones, who didn't look like he believed it himself—maybe it's something about the Coens' popular association with irreverent mockery? Kelly Macdonald probably gets it right when she calls it a Coen brothers film: "They're their own genre."

I'm tempted to throw in superhero, because its remarkable villain Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem with a haircut no one ever forgets) is so vastly bigger than life. But it never gives off the recognizable superhero vibe currently infecting so much entertainment these days—Get Out, for example, or Breaking Bad. It's everywhere right now. Even Chigurh's coin-flipping thing, which I believe is something a Batman villain did in the '30s, is not overplayed here. In fact, No Country for Old Men strikes me as the most Hitchcockian film that codirectors and cowriters Ethan Coen and Joel Coen have made, a story based essentially and almost purely on schlepping the McGuffin around. Once inured to the violence you can see that for what it is, short bursts of set pieces that are actually quite artfully done, and mercifully short. Most of the shock of the violence has to do with the assorted weird ways that Chigurh kills people, along with his chilling efficiency. The arcs and shape of the narrative are almost purely physical, with people on the move and busy doing things. Dialogue is minimal, and there are long periods without it. In terms of Alfred Hitchcock, it reminds me perhaps most of Vertigo, but the trailing action is literally doubled.

The three main characters in No Country for Old Men—Chigurh, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones)—rarely meet or interact across the length of the movie. Chigurh is chasing Moss, with the sheriff trailing behind attempting to keep up. The story involves cross-border drug trafficking in West Texas, which took a turn for deepening violence in the '70s and '80s. The movie is set in 1980. A drug deal has gone bad and Moss found the cash. He wants to keep it. Chigurh wants it back. Sheriff Bell has jurisdiction for the massacre. Ready set go.

The Coens preserve the brooding air of the original novel, but shift the focus from Sheriff Bell to Chigurh, who is manifestly more cinematic. Sheriff Bell, for his part, is having a crisis of faith, and his ruminations about the changing times are much more the focus of the novel, though Chigurh is just as evil there. (Look, when you consider Judge Holden and the folks populating The Road, it's apparent McCarthy is no slouch at making bad guys.) That brooding is part of the movie too—Tommy Lee Jones's voiceovers and conversations with another sheriff and some others cover that—but it's much more dialed back, a wise move by my lights. Some of Sheriff Bell's right-wing views in the novel veer close to noxious.

On the other hand, shifting the focus more to Chigurh also plays to a popular conception of the Coens as hyena-like nihilists, who are laughing at us. Fargo is seen as a certain apotheosis of that view, coupled with the brutal silliness of The Big Lebowski, a sense that echoes throughout their extensive catalog for a good part of the movie-going audience. It may be the Coens are simply one of those things you love or hate, but look at Chigurh for one example of how unfair it can be too. The freaky weapon Chigurh uses here, a pneumatic thing with a hose and tank called a captive bolt pistol, which is used to slaughter cattle efficiently, is a fiendish device and looks like something the Coens could well dream up (remember, the first movie either was involved with was Joel as a production assistant on The Evil Dead). But the captive bold pistol comes from the novel.

So that's just another of the interesting sideline tensions in No Country for Old Men—is McCarthy elevating the Coens, or are the Coens dragging McCarthy into their muck? It is actually an inspired meeting of creative visions, one of the best movies the Coens have made yet, and a great picture you owe it to yourself to see at least twice.

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