No Country for Old Men (United States, 2007)
Expecting normalcy from a Coen Brothers production is a pointless endeavor, but anticipating brilliance isn't outlandish. Their latest feature, which has about zero box office potential, provides plenty of the latter and a little of the former. It’s mostly an off-kilter road trip that accomplishes what the Coens do best - seamlessly merging drama, violence, and quirky humor into a whole. They also accomplish something many would have believed to be impossible: providing a coherent and reasonably faithful adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel. (Many would place McCarthy in the "unadaptable" category.) However, following their own nonstandard trail, Joel and Ethan - following McCarthy's lead - decide that just because a story is worth telling, it doesn’t demand a clean ending. This is a decision that will infuriate some members of the audience. Done right, I have always believed open ended conclusions can be assets, and I think that's the case here. Nevertheless, those who openly hissed at John Sayles' Limbo or declared the finale of The Sopranos to be a tease will not be pleased by how No Country for Old Men elects to wrap up its diverse storylines.
The movie essentially follows three characters whose paths are destined to cross. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is a heartless killer who - as we see early in the proceedings - is dangerous even when handcuffed and under police guard. He wanders the plains of Texas, killing pretty much everyone he encounters except those lucky enough to win a coin toss in his presence. Moss (Josh Brolin channeling Nick Nolte) is an ex-welder who, while on a hunting trip, stumbles across a drug deal gone bad. There are a lot of bodies, a truck full of "Mexican brown," and a suitcase of cash. Moss takes the latter but eventually wishes he hadn't since the surviving owners want it back. Meanwhile, local sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is drawn into all of this because Chigurh escapes from one of his deputies and the drug deal massacre happens in his territory.
The Coens know how a thing or two about pacing, and it's relentless here. The story is full of unexpected twists and switchbacks, and opportunities for the audience to gear down and take a breath are few and far between. Like Alfred Hitchcock with Psycho, the filmmakers don’t want viewers to become too comfortable with any of the characters - they might not be around for long. This is not a comedy (at least not in the sense that Raising Arizona and Intolerable Cruelty are), but that doesn’t keep the Coens from inserting little moments of dry, dark humor, many of which are the result of Tommy Lee Jones’ laconic wit.
The leads all do tremendous jobs, working them into Oscar nomination territory. Javier Bardem is unforgettable with his shoulder length mane of dark hair, his remorseless expression, and his ever-present high-pressure air gun. Chigurh is the kind of guy you wouldn’t want to meet in the middle of nowhere, let alone in a dark alley. He's probably the most compelling screen villain since Anthony Hopkins brought Hannibal Lecter to life in The Silence of the Lambs. Terms like "mercy" have no meaning for him - he neither asks for nor gives quarter. Tommy Lee Jones is his usual reliable self; it's hard to ask for someone to be more comfortable in these boots. Josh Brolin is unrecognizable as the beleaguered Moss. This fall has provided Brolin with a twin chance to re-invent himself and enhance his reputation; he also has a plumb role in the recently released American Gangster. He's a bad guy there, but a good guy here. Finally, Kelly Macdonald (as Moss' wife) and Woody Harrelson (a small but memorable part as a cock-sure bounty hunter) provide effective supporting turns.
If there's one thing that can always be said of a Coen Brothers film, it's that conventional rules and expectations can be jettisoned. That's certainly the case here, with a Western that's not a Western, a crime thriller that's not a crime thriller, and a comedy that's not a comedy. Like Fargo, the movie delights in making viewers scratch their scalps. And, while the ending may be a sore point for some, it will have others chuckling and nodding their heads appreciatively (albeit perhaps after a brief "WTF?" when the end credits begin to roll). That's what good cinema is expected to do, and the success in this area of No Country for Old Men puts it among 2007's motion picture elite.
No Country for Old Men (United States, 2007)
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, Garret Dillahunt, Tess Harper
Screenplay: Joel & Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Music: Carter Burwell
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films