“Got some hard bark on that one”
The Coen Brothers are most definitely back in form. While No Country for Old Men is not a perfect film, it is masterfully crafted and orchestrated to brilliant effect. Miller’s Crossing remains the one and only masterpiece from them, in my opinion, but this new one ranks right below it with Barton Fink and Fargo. The Coens always did better when there was a little darkness lurking behind the dry wit and deadpan deliveries. I have not seen Intolerable Cruelty, but, along with The Ladykillers, it appeared to have lost that edge so desperately needed for their movies to succeed. My only reservation here is the lethargic pace in a few moments, but mostly the ending that seems to go on for about ten minutes too long. I will fault that with the brothers’ adapting process of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. We are able to drop so many characters throughout the proceedings without a second thought, that the necessity to go back to Sheriff Bell at the end was a bit too out of place, waxing poetic for pretension sake. Otherwise, there is very, very little not to like.
Upon viewing the trailer, I was under the impression the story would be more than just about a man stumbling upon two million dollars and his attempt to elude capture by the enigmatic Anton Chigurth. However, much to my surprise, and ultimate approval, there was not. Every periphery character comes to the story for the sole purpose to enhance the central plot and give a bit more information on the cat and mouse chase. It truly is Josh Brolin’s stoic Llewelyn Moss versus Javier Bardem’s psychopathic Chigurh, and these two do not disappoint. I cannot believe Brolin almost wasn’t in the film at all. He had done a test reel with Robert Rodriguez during Grindhouse filming and sent it in for review only to find that the Coen’s wanted to know who lit it, not more about the actor included. With a little pressure from his agent, the brothers reluctantly took a meeting, pretty much when the audition process was over, and that was all she wrote. Who says some hard work and persistence can’t get you anywhere? It may have gotten Brolin in an Oscar winning film.
The leads are so good here, they don’t even need to speak—and believe me they don’t for much of the movie. Sans score/soundtrack, the quiet foreboding atmosphere and the shear expression of exertion, mentally and physically, on either’s face amps the tension and suspense to unforeseen levels. I was on the edge of my seat for practically the entire film, waiting anxiously to see what carnage Bardem would leave in his wake and if Brolin would once again escape, barely able to walk, for a freedom that probably wouldn’t last too long. I can’t think of any character more menacing them Bardem in recent memory, if ever. With his Dutch Boy haircut, sly smirk when speaking, and harsh deep accent, he would give even the most unfretted person shivers. And his air gun contraption always dragging behind him is a fantastic touch. With so few words emitted, the props do all the speaking for him.
Every supporting role is magnificently handled as well. If the Coens know one thing, it is the small town, country bumpkin mentality. The old southern drawls and longwinded ways to say simple things, with just the right amount of flair to leave you shaking your head about how real people don’t talk that way, are here in force. Kelly Macdonald plays the wife who knows what’s happening but never lets on to perfection and Garret Dillahunt is a riot as the smarter than his words deputy. His description of the shootout is hilarious and his back and forth with the sheriff always entertaining. That sheriff, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is also spectacular. He is the stand-in for the old men of the title, a lawman from a bygone era trying to understand the cruelty and deceit running rampant. Brought up by men who did their duty without the need for a gun, now chasing around murder after murder with federal agents going over every gruesome detail ad infinitum, he knows he is outmatched, and realizes he just doesn’t have the stomach to exist in this new world. We get all that from his character and his actions alone, we don’t really need the epilogue of him visiting people from his past to discover it for himself—it is a bit of overkill. Oh, and don’t forget the city-types in Woody Harrelson and Coen regular Stephen Root, both funny and effective in small roles.
What really stands out, though, is the storytelling on display. The Coens are not afraid to go slow and make everything perfect. Each time I found myself questioning something about how Brolin’s Moss was handling a situation; I soon got my answer with him waking late at night with an epiphany. Those two moments were a revelation, as though the filmmakers were reading mind. Every motivation was spot-on and each word carefully placed with minimalist precision, letting the audience know exactly what they need, no more/no less. The film is also beautifully shot and composed. There must have been some storyboarding going on because some of the set pieces and angles are breathtaking. You know exactly what is in store from the beginning as you see Bardem quietly getting free from his handcuffed position to kill his first victim, all while being blurred in the background. We need to see this blood and violence at the start to understand his malice and remorseless attitude, but the Coens know too much can be too much. Towards the end we only see the aftermaths and residuals from the killings. What was once shown to startle, with its brutality, eventually changes to become a device for us to now watch the killer’s face as he commits his atrocities. He seems to have become slightly unglued; perhaps meeting a formidable foe for once, and we are forced to peer on his impatience—just one more detail woven into the effective tapestry of this film. Welcome back Joel and Ethan; hopefully you will stay for the long haul.
No Country for Old Men 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½
Photo credit: Richard Foreman/Courtesy of Miramax Films