No Country For Old Men

dir: The Brothers Coen
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I never thought the Coen Brothers would ever make another movie that completely and utterly achieved greatness. That’s the only superlative I’m going to use in the review, because belabouring the point that this is a pretty strong film and one of their best for over a decade will only prompt people brought in by the hype to say “Eh, it’s not so great.”

More important that saying “It’s Great, Mate!” is being able to articulate as to why I think it’s so good, and why I enjoyed it so much. It’s actually quite odd, because the elements that really made it stand out for me might not even seem that important to anyone else.

By far the part of the flick that struck me most profoundly was not the Southern Gothic tone, the (admittedly) strong performances, the dialogue, plot or the production values. What struck me the most was the use of sound, and the fact that there was barely any music used in the flick at all.

We’re so used to being hit over the head in flicks with emotive and manipulative soundtracks and scores whose sole purpose is to do the heavy lifting that the actors and the script can’t do on its own. After all, today’s busy idiot doesn’t have the time to watch a film and to work out how they should feel about a scene on their own. They need the studio-mandated soundtrack to tell them exactly how they should feel about anything that is going on at any given moment.

Music’s complete absence here had a galvanising effect on how I viewed what ever was happening. It actually raised the tension levels of numerous scenes to almost unbearable levels, making moments that would otherwise be generic in other flicks into unique experiences here.

Also noticeable is the Coens’ determination to make the story cleave very closely to the book it is based on by Cormac McCarthy, the vacuum cleaner salesman turned novelist who penned the book whilst languishing in a Guatemalan jail for beating up a prostitute. Maybe I’m making that up.

But it does adhere very closely, down to replicating several crucial moments that will probably infuriate viewers both familiar and unfamiliar with the source material. I knew what was coming and I still shook my head as I stood up at the end and walked out of the cinema muttering “you’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) accidentally comes across the scene of a drug deal gone wrong out in the Texan desert. He’s got hunter/tracker skills, so he figures out a fair bit of stuff which leads him to a whole mess of money in a suitcase. During his travels, he finds one guy still alive, begging for “agua”.

Agua is Spanish for “white girls”, I think, I’m not entirely sure on that. After I finish the review, I’ll go and look it up on Babelfish. But not before.

Though Moss leaves him there and absconds, late at night, as many of you with consciences know, the knowledge that he could have helped a man and didn’t eats away at him, until all he can do is give in to his better nature.

Oh, what fools we are when we try to do good for other people. It can only ever end in tears.

His compassion sets off a trail of destruction not seen since the Terminator films. It would be logical to say it’s his discovery and taking of the money that sets everything off, but it’s far more believable and nihilistic to say that it’s his attempt to give water to a dying man that really lands him in the shit.

Thus begins Llewellyn’s mad flight, not from justice, but from either The Angel of Death or An Angel of Death. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is a very strange, very discomforting monster dressed in black and sporting a page boy haircut who kills pretty much everyone in his path. Some he kills because he wants to or needs to professionally, others he kills purely at random, because they offend some set of arbitrary rules he formulates, or because of some cosmic logic only he is privy to. He is relentless.

When Chigurh first kills a policeman, his pleasure during the kill is orgasmic. From then on he kills without a moment’s hesitation, without blinking, and without any feeling apart from a desire to keep his boots clean during and after his exploits.

It’s truly an amazing performance. It has to be seen to be believed, and even then I couldn’t believe much of what he was saying and doing. I mean that in a good way, too, not in that it was unbelievable and lacking in dramatic credibility. Like when Tom Cruise plays any character you care to name.

No matter where Llewellyn goes, he is followed, not only by his black clad nemesis, but also by a crew of Mexicans wanting their money back. At first there’s a logical reason for how easily he can be tracked, but as the film goes on and he gets increasingly more desperate, you sense that Chigurh’s implacability makes him as much a metaphoric existential force as it does just a relentless hitman.

But maybe that’s reading a bit much into it. Llewellyn’s no dunderhead, and, for most of the time, is smart enough to keep ahead of the various groups tracking him. With the less showy role, it is Brolin’s performance that really centres and balances the film. We’re really on his side, and more curious to see what he’ll do, since we can predict what Chigurh’s next move is likely to be. It’s more surprising when it doesn’t involve shooting some poor fucker in the head.

Ably lending support is Tommy Lee Jones, playing the kind of role his face was created for, and that he’s played at least a dozen times before. As a lawman following the trail of destruction and trying to find a way to save Llewellyn’s life before it is too late, Sheriff Bell is so world-weary that he looks like he should be a lump of rock in the desert continuing to be worn down even more by the wind, time and sand.

It is in him that the real message of the movie is articulated: that this world has gone to hell, and there is no reclaiming it, no justice to achieve in order to correct the scales and no good or evil to fight at least to a draw. Evil wins, the innocent don’t get a free ride, and there is no divine will or karmic comeuppance waiting to sort things out.

What a downer, eh? What humour there is, and there is a bit of it, is dark and sardonic in its nature, never being overt or too obvious. It’s not black humour, which is what it would be if there was a scene where a guy accidentally shoots his own hand off and then has a dog eat some of his fingers, which does sound hilarious, I admit.

No, it’s the humour of a sociopath being irritated by a gas station clerk’s small talk and being unable to believe that a man could marry into such a business, or of moments where you expect one outcome and get a completely different one. There’s nothing funny about the ending, though, despite the deep ironies on display for everyone and everything.

It is incredibly controlled and well constructed filmmaking of a sort I thought the Coens abandoned a while back when they started putting George Clooney into most of their flicks. Most people think of them as makers of comedies, but when you look back at their oeuvre, the fill this most reminded me of was Blood Simple, the flick that started it all off for them. Both share an uncompromising vision and familiarity with the visual language of early Hollywood, but also a desire to make something unique and non-generic. Comparisons, for me at least, with Fargo completely miss the point. And since I don't think much of Fargo it’s not a very useful comparison.

Is it a western, is it film noir, is it just a crime story, is it a meditation on the nature of good and evil?

Maybe. Maybe it’s all those and more. All I know is how much I enjoyed it, and how tense I was during some of the standout scenes. The tension, which is a hard thing to create and maintain, is almost excruciating during tense scenes, and I loved the film for it.

You don’t have to believe the hype, but you can at least believe that there’s a reason why critics went berserk for this film. It’s not just because many audience members won’t get it and will hate the ending. And it’s not just because it’s the Coen Brothers, because they’ve had their share of critical drubbings.

It’s just a really sharp, keenly observed and immaculately well made film. That’s all there is to it. You’re not going to like the ending, but hopefully the journey there will be as astounding for you as it was for me.

9 times whenever someone says ‘hold still, this will only take a second’ to you, you should start running like hell out of 10

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“If the rule you followed brought you to this, what good is the rule?” – No Country for Old Men.

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