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No Country for Old Men
Director: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Screenplay: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen (based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy)
Stars: Tommy Lee Jones (Sheriff Ed Tom Bell), Javier Bardem (Anton Chigurh), Josh Brolin (Llewelyn Moss), Woody Harrelson (Carson Wells), Kelly Macdonald (Carla Jean Moss), Garret Dillahunt (Deputy Wendell), Tess Harper (Loretta Bell), Barry Corbin (Ellis), Stephen Root (Man Who Hires Wells), Rodger Boyce (El Paso Sheriff)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2007
Country: U.S.
No Country for Old Men
It's pronounced Lou-Ellen! Not since Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) can I remember a film in which dead silence is used more exquisitely and more frequently to produce nearly unbearable tension than it is in Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men. Faithfully based on the 2003 novel by Cormac McCarthy, it marks the Coen Brothers' return to the gritty, stripped-down roots from which their first film, 1984's Texas-set neo-noir Blood Simple was born. No Country not only returns them to the bleak setting of West Texas, but also to the dry existential terrain for which the physical landscape is a particularly acute manifestation.

At its core, No Country is an extended chase film that begins when an ordinary man named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin)--who doesn't seem to be a particularly good nor bad person--is out hunting and stumbles on the grisly scene of a heroin deal gone bad. He finds several dead bodies, several shot-up trucks, one dead dog, and a suitcase full of more than $2 million. Unable to resist the temptation, he takes the money and heads home to the trailer park where he lives with his wife (Kelly Macdonald). The irony here is that, at this point, he probably could have gotten away with it, but then he makes the fateful decision to return to the scene of the crime for completely altruistic reasons, which sets the rest of the plot in motion.

Soon, he is being doggedly pursued by Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a sociopathic hitman with a strangely absurd page-boy haircut who is out to reclaim the money for himself. Llewelyn clearly feels that he can outsmart Chigurh and anyone else who comes after him (including a more refined bounty hunter played by Woody Harrelson), and the film's greatest moments of tension lie in our anticipation of impending disaster: It is steeped in unspoken but utterly palpable premonitions of doom. The film actually begins with Chigurh's arrest and escape from the police, so we are well aware of not only his seemingly endless capacity for remorseless killing, but also his favorite modus operandi, which is a cattle gun that blasts air with enough power to crack a man's skull. As played with relentless intensity by Bardem, Chigurh is a figure of nightmares, which is only one of many ways in which No Country for Old Men plays like the much darker cousin of the Coens' sophomore film, the cartoonish comedy Raising Arizona (1987), which featured a bounty hunter that was literally spawned by the hero's fevered dreams. Similarly, Llewelyn brings Chigurh down on himself by his decision to take the suitcase of money, consequences be damned (ahh, the choices we make ...).

There are other similarities between No Country and Raising Arizona, especially the Coens' amusing penchant for talkative secondary characters who in any other film would be just cashiers or pedestrians, but in their hands become both sources of comedy and potential victims. One of the film's most bravura setpieces involves a routine conversation that slowly develops into a tense game of fate between Chigurh and a gas station owner who is like a cross between the “Not unless round's funny” cashier in Raising Arizona and the “I can have it in about two weeks” cashier in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). While the scene seems to be a random discursion from the main plotline (a favored Coen tactic), it is actually a particularly acute manifestation of the film's underlying theme about the increasingly fragmented and meaningless nature of violence in contemporary society. The film's temporal setting in 1980, which is otherwise unimportant as far as I can tell, suggests that it was somewhere after Vietnam and the failure of the '60s revolutions that things really went south.

No Country's underlying theme is given explicit voice in the character of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who is simultaneously on top of the action and always one step behind. He understands immediately what has happened after the botched drug deal in the desert, but is ultimately powerless to do anything except follow the trails and piece together the story as it unfolds (I was reminded of the scene in Seven in which the despairing police detective played by Morgan Freeman describes his job as “picking up the pieces”). It is Ed Tom's narration that opens the film, and although he exists primarily as a second character, a third-act turn of events pushes him into center stage and we realize that it is his viewpoint that gives the film's otherwise meaningless bloodshed some kind of coherence, which is to say it explicitly frames it as utterly incoherent. As a representative of an older, dying way of life, Ed Tom is essentially incapable of dealing with the madness of the modern world. The final moments of No Country for Old Men deliver a series of unexpected and seemingly random developments, and its deliberately ambiguous ending all but demands studied retrospection, if not repeated viewings.

Overall Rating: (4)

Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

All images copyright ©2007 Paramount Vantage and Miramax Films

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