Review: No Country Is Vintage Coens

November 7, 2007 at 4:23 pm Leave a comment

Javier Bardem in a scene from Cormac McCarthy and the Coen brothers. If you stop to think about it, it’s a wonder they’ve never teamed up before.

The revered writer and the acclaimed moviemakers share so much in common: a love of language, a drive to develop rich characters, an appreciation for the importance of a vivid sense of place and an innate ability to tell stories that take you in directions you’d never have expected from the outset.

“No Country for Old Men” marries the three men’s strengths in ways that are deceptively simple and profoundly moving, set against a harshly beautiful, seemingly endless expanse of scrub-brushed West Texas. (Thanks to the breathtaking work of a fourth man, the Coens’ longtime cinematographer and we say this all the time for a reason the great Roger Deakins.)

It’s vintage stuff for the writing-directing brothers, Joel and Ethan, a return to the location of their 1984 debut, “Blood Simple,” and the tone of their masterpiece, “Fargo.” It’s their best work in a while and it’s probably going to end up being the year’s best movie.

In adapting McCarthy’s 2005 novel about crime and carnage along the Rio Grande, the Coens stay mostly faithful to its structure while maintaining much of the author’s rhythmically clipped, colorful dialogue.

If you’ve read the book, you’ll be pleased with the choices they’ve made; if you haven’t, wait until after you’ve seen the film to do so. Allow yourself to be engrossed by its unpredictability. You’ll think you know what the movie is about until the absolute last shot in the film’s boldly enigmatic conclusion which will change your perception about everything you’ve seen in the preceding two hours. (Not everyone is as fond of the ending, by the way. Whether or not you respond favorably, it’ll definitely leave you thinking.)

Set in 1980, “No Country” follows three vastly different men tied together by a big-money drug deal gone wrong which sounds like a standard-issue genre picture. It’s anything but.

Sporting the same shaggy mustache he wore in “American Gangster,” Josh Brolin is perfectly cast as Llewelyn Moss, a stoic welder and Vietnam veteran who stumbles upon the botched transaction’s bloody aftermath, finds a briefcase stuffed with $2 million and impulsively makes off with it. Brolin presents a sort of rugged everyman trying to get by, blessed with more instincts than brains. He’s not a bad guy, just in over his head besides, wouldn’t you grab the money, too? (And Kelly Macdonald, as his wife, shows more spark as the film goes along than her sweetness might initially indicate.)

Meanwhile, Javier Bardem is chilling as Anton Chigurh, the mysterious, murderous psychopath stalking Llewelyn to get the cash back. With his oddly wholesome bowl haircut and the coin he flips to give his potential victims a chance to bet on their lives, Bardem has given us one of the great, inspired turns of movie villainy. You have absolutely no idea where he might go from scene to scene with this quietly methodical yet wildly dangerous character, but you can bet something bad will happen once he gets there.

And Tommy Lee Jones is firmly in his element as the pleasingly named Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who’s tracking them both and lamenting the loss of a more honorable way of life in an increasingly senseless world. The lines in his face, the deadpan sarcasm in that seasoned twang of a voice, the no-nonsense look in his eyes clearly, Jones could have played this part in his sleep. Thankfully for us, he didn’t.

(The supporting cast, led by Woody Harrelson as a mercenary who’s also on the hunt for the money, is just as well-chosen, down to the smallest role. Standouts include Beth Grant as Llewelyn’s mother-in-law, Gene Jones as a gas station owner and Rodger Boyce as another sheriff.)

The Coens skip seamlessly between all three men, through trailer parks and cheap motels and back and forth across the Mexican border, brilliantly building tension while sprinkling some much needed, very dark humor amid the bloodshed. (Deputy: “It’s a mess, ain’t it, sheriff?” Sheriff: “If it ain’t, it’ll do till the mess gets here.”)

McCarthy knows this place and knows these people (if you don’t believe it, take a trip out there yourself to Marfa or Marathon) and his writing simultaneously reflects a world-weariness and a fundamental sense of optimism. The violence in his story, in this film, will make you gasp because of its prevalence, because it’s unromanticized and unadorned, but that’s only superficially what “No Country for Old Men” is about.

Sitting in his favorite diner, reading in the newspaper about a couple suspected of a gruesome killing spree, Sheriff Bell ruefully remarks to his deputy, “Once you stop hearing sir and ma’am, the rest is sure to follow.” That simple tidbit of down-home wisdom is the key to a complex story about a complex world.

“No Country for Old Men,” a Miramax Films and Paramount Vantage release, is rated R for strong graphic violence and some language. Running time: 122 minutes. Four stars out of four.



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