Tuesday, January 22, 2008

No Country for Old Men

This past weekend (on the nineteenth, to be precise), I attended the nominating committee meeting for The Chlotrudis Society for Independent Film, where one of the longer discussions was over where Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, and Javier Bardem fit in the award categories - are they lead actors or supporting cast? The group eventually decided on all three being leads; my initial urges were that Brolin was the lead and Jones and Bardem were supporting. I can see the argument, though.

It leads me to wonder why leading and supporting cast members are separated in terms of awards. Is it really a different job; that is, when an actor or actress is hired for a role, does he or she do anything different based upon the prominence of the role? I honestly don't know.

It's also strange to see the Chlotrudis nominees so closely paralleling the Academy nominees. A good thing, generally - when a group of industry people and an analytic group hit the same target, something has probably gone right.

No Country for Old Men

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 6 January 2008 at AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run)

Ah, the suitcase full of money. It's pure temptation, opportunity without responsibility, so long as you can get away with it. Of course, as anyone who has ever seen a movie will tell you, it's almost impossible to do that. Hundreds of movies have likely been made based on the premise of a man finding one but having a hard time spending it before someone else finds them; No Country for Old Men is one of the best.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds the suitcase while out hunting for game; it's at the site of a drug deal that has gone wrong and left everyone on both sides dead. Looking for him is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a sociopath whose weapon of choice is the cattle gun, a compressed air tank that makes the victim appear to have been shot by an invisible bullet. Cautiously tracking down both is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a veteran lawman who finds he doesn't like where the chase is leading him.

There are complications to the plot, of course - the almost-legitimate by comparison mob hires another man (Woody Harrelson) to track down Moss and Chigurh, mostly with the intent of stopping Chigurh before his rampage brings every cop in Texas onto their heads, and he's not the only extra factor in the chase. The title of the film refers not to the main cat and mouse game but to Sheriff Bell, who finds himself too disturbed and repulsed by the sort of crime he's seeing in 1980 to be able to combat it effectively. This complexity makes No Country a rich film that gives the audience plenty to chew on afterward, when it certainly could have just been a generic chase movie.

But make no mistake - this is, at its heart, a chase movie, perfectly executed. Moss is a wily Vietnam vet whom we first see making an attempt to live off the land, and he's able to transplant that survival instinct to progressively more urban settings. He was probably recon in the army while Chigurh is a tank, at least in temperament. He crashes through Texas without much in the way of finesse, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. There are several great set pieces as Chigurh and the other pursuers close in on Moss, and the Coen brothers have almost perfect judgment on when to use the threat of violence and when to follow through in bloody fashion.

The Coens' films are almost always originals, but adapting Cormac McCarthy's novel seems to bring a bit of a change to their approach. They've told plenty of crime stories in their career, but they've always had a certain awareness of how unlikely or ridiculous their characters and situations are. If that's the case here, they're not showing it; maybe they feel it wouldn't be proper to treat someone else's creations the way they treat their own. They still make something that is identifiably theirs, but even if it is one of their most precisely crafted films, there's no distancing feeling that they know how clever they are.

Even Chigurh, the character it would be easiest to treat as a bit of a joke, is played perfectly straight. Javier Bardem plays the killer as absolutely relentless; he never seems relaxed (the limp makes sure you we this is taking some effort), but he's always just short of keyed up enough to make any kind of mistake. He's a man of few words, but those words mark him as a sociopath with an all-purpose chip on his shoulder. Josh Brolin, on the other hand, does look nervous as Moss, tough not quite afraid. We always get the sense that Moss knows what he's capable of, and knows that Chigurh is right on the border of what he can handle. He and the Coens let us be a little unsure about Moss, who certainly doesn't seem to be the nicest guy in the world. Tommy Lee Jones, on the other hand, does make us comfortable as Bell. Even when he's expressing doubt, it's somewhat reassuring, because that's what weathered-looking sheriffs are supposed to do.

There are a lot of elements to No Country that play as familiar, and even the combination of elements (guy with bag of money + relentless killer + lawman who wishes things were as simple as they were in the old days) has probably been done a lot. It's seldom been handled nearly as well as this, though - even the small parts, like Kelly Macdonald's portrayal of Llewelyn's wife who really can't comprehend what's going on, are note-perfect.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with six other reviews

1 comment:

patrick said...

just saw no country for old men; it's unassumingly unconventional and yet (thankfully) never over the top. morally dumbfounding, but that can be a good thing... all in all the Coen brothers deserve their oscars, well done indeed.