Monday, November 26, 2007
No Country For Old Men (2007)
Despite being an obsessive watcher of movies, I don’t feel compelled to go to the theatre much anymore. It often seems like Hollywood doesn’t have that much to offer me these days. Instead, I generally rely on video and television channels like Turner Classic Movies to satisfy my craving for interesting and well-crafted films. It costs much less, I can drink beer, and I usually find myself less disappointed than when I make a trip out to the theater.
That being said, rarely have I been as excited for a movie as I was for No Country For Old Men. Waiting for this one to come out was like being twelve years old again, when it seemed as though every movie I saw was good, and I waited for new films to be released like other kids waited for Christmas morning. Thankfully, this time I was not to be let down. No Country For Old Men is by far the most brutal, beautiful, and haunting film I’ve seen this year.
I have enjoyed many of the Coen Brothers’ films, Fargo and Blood Simple especially, but I’ve never been much of devotee. For me, their work has always lacked restraint, relying on style over substance, quirkiness over meaning. I still haven’t bothered to see Intolerable Cruelty or The Ladykillers, both of which seem so farcical as to be unwatchable, a sentiment that I developed after seeing the overwrought O Brother, Where Art Thou?
As it turns out, though, the Coen’s are just as comfortable handling terse, literary material as they are their own orotund dialogue. In No Country For Old Men they have found a story that has the moral and visceral power to make their considerable technical prowess seem as measured and flawless as ever before. Films like Miller’s Crossing and Fargo have shown that the Coens can construct a scene with the best of them, but here they show a restrain that is remarkable and chillingly effective.
The film is based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, a modern literary virtuoso whose books have always seemed to have a biblical nature to them, concerned as they are with last things. Death, decay, morality, and the nature of man have all had a vital part in his novels, especially of late in The Road, a novel that is literally about the end of the world. Ever-present in McCarthy’s mythology and well at work in No Country For Old Men is a yearning for the old ways, personified here by Tommy Lee Jones’s Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a man who has seen the halcyon days of the Old West give way to senseless violence and nihilism-- brutality so absurd that “it’s hard to take its measure.” Although he is on the screen less than some of the others, Bell is the true protagonist of the film; he is its moral compass and the character with whom we most identify. The film opens with his lamentation of the state of the world and ends with his touching description of a dream concerning his long-dead father. Both monologues help to frame the story that comes between, the former setting the stage for the starkness and violence that is to come, and the latter offering the most resignedly hopeful of codas.
But these scenes are perhaps more McCarthy than they are Joel and Ethan Coen, who seem more at home in the middle 90 percent of the film, which concerns a hunter named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) who stumbles across a drug deal gone bad. In a snap-decision, Moss decides to steal the $2 million in cash that he finds on the scene, a move that he seems to know will mean his death but that he makes anyway. This decision triggers a rash of violence when the Mexican drug dealers, a bounty hunter named Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), and an existential killer (Javier Bardem) all begin to chase him down in order to reclaim the fortune.
Brolin seems to fit comfortably into the role of Moss, playing the kind of resourceful man’s man that has slowly begun to fade from major Hollywood fare in recent years with the rise of the juvenile leading man. His Moss is forever kept at a distance from the audience-- we know little of his motivation for taking on such a dangerous burden, which for the film’s purposes is just fine. Moss is the equivalent of the rat caught in the maze, and No Country For Old Men establishes early on that it is much more interested in studying the complexities of the maze than it is the plight of the rat. Still, Brolin deserves a great deal of credit for doing so much with the little backstory that he is given-- he manages to gain the audience’s support even as his struggle becomes that much more futile.
With his lazy gait and wild-eyed stare, it is Javier Bardem who steals the most scenes as the unstoppable and unflappable Anton Chigurh. He has thus far been the center of most of the coverage of the film, and rightfully so. He manages to be both despicable and strangely principled, flipping coins to decide whether people live or die but also remaining true to his word, however horrifying it may be. Monster that he is, Bardem’s Chigurh is also honest. He tells Moss in one scene that if he gets his money back, he won’t kill the other’s wife. “I won’t tell you you can save yourself,” he adds, “because you can’t.” Strangely, I found myself believing that if Moss had agreed Chigurh would have been true to his word. What that’s worth, I can’t say, but it lends a quite contradictory dimension to a character that’s otherwise wholly evil. I’ve heard Chigurh compared to the likes of Hannibal Lecter as a villain who is terrifying to watch yet also strangely alluring, and I disagree. Chigurh is too taciturn to resemble Lecter, whose horrifying quality came from his ability to be charming one moment and terrifically violent the next. Chigurh, on the other hand, seems to have a relative balance of presence and temperament, and comes off more as an unhinged version of the existential hitman at the center of Jean Pierre Melville’s classic film Le Samourai. Brutal, but not without method or principle.
No Country For Old Men, for all its moral and existential preoccupations, also manages to include some of the most heart-pounding set pieces of any film in recent memory. The scene where Moss and Chigurh first clash is absolutely chilling, as the gun battle moves from a decaying hotel out into the deserted streets where the two characters take turns stalking one another among parked cars and darkened corners. The scene works so well because of the Coen’s mastery of film language, a visual dexterity that is also visible in the final scene of Blood Simple and throughout much of Fargo. Because of the no-nonsense way that the brothers handle violence, every scene is permeated with a sense of dread. The film doesn’t need to rely on the exchange of gunfire to build excitement, but rather on the suspense of the hunt, which is itself a major theme of the film at large.
Another highlight of No Country For Old Men its excellent photography, which manages to mirror the bleakness of the story while at the same time preserving a painterly command of space and color. Decay is ever-present in cinematographer Roger Deakins’ striking photography of motel rooms, trailer parks, and the sun-baked West Texas landscape, which here looks and feels just as wild and untamed as it did in the best of Sam Peckinpah’s work. The mood too is one of sparseness: characters speak more in actions, looks, and gestures (especially the kind involving firearms) than they do in words. Similarly, the film’s painstakingly minimal use of music (absolutely the right choice for any McCarthy story) strips the soundtrack down to its most basic aural elements, where even the smallest sound, like the beeping of a transmitter or a rifle being cocked, can have grave implications.
Despite his reclusiveness, Cormac McCarthy has become very much in vogue in the last few years, to the point that two more of his books are currently in production as films with the likes of Ridley Scott and John Hillcoat (The Proposition) directing them. Hillcoat seems like a good enough choice to make The Road into a film. 2006’s The Proposition, with its arid landscapes and shocking violence, is perhaps the closest cinematic cousin to No Country For Old Men, and hopefully a good indication of things to come. Previously, I would have said that most of McCarthy’s novels were unfilmable, but the Coens have definitely set the standard for how to adapt such powerfully dark material. Rarely have I seen a film where all of the elements of cinematic language where working so seamlessly to create one complete and uncompromising vision.