The Theory of Chaos

Monday, December 24, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - No Country For Old Men

Full review behind the jump

No Country for Old Men

: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
: screenplay by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy
: Scott Rudin, Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, Garret Dillahunt, Tess Harper, Barry Corbin, Stephen Root

But what I know about is Texas, an' down here... you're on your own."
-From the opening narration of
Blood Simple, the first feature written/directed by the Coen Brothers

I see an umbilical cord here stretching all the way back through the Coen Brothers’ filmography, connecting up to
No Country for Old Men, their latest work. Their first film, Blood Simple, is also a stark and merciless thriller, not without its odd touches, and it climaxes with a scene where a woman stands alone in a room, with a man in the next room shooting at her through the wall. Each bullet hole punches a shaft of light into the darkness, and the movie’s final joke is that these two people have been brought by impeccable logic to a fatal showdown, and she doesn’t even know who he is or how he came to be there.

This film contains more than one similar scene – it is hypnotizing in its dread of thin walls, and little telltale noises that make you worry something awful is on the other side of those walls; something that’s coming for you. You will find yourself
listening to this movie with a startling keenness. But this project is much more than the accomplished plot mechanics and set pieces of Blood Simple, or the prodigious craft and visual seduction of Barton Fink, or the criminal foibles and resilient, quirky courage of humanity against its own fallibility in Fargo. This movie draws from everything that Joel and Ethan Coen have ever learned and accomplished, and becomes something which is both greater than the sum of its parts and wholly itself.

They too have arrived at their fate, and the film they were destined to make, easily one of the best of this year, and also to be stood and counted when a reckoning of this decade of cinema is made. It’s been over ten years since they made a movie they expected us to take seriously. But
No Country, in every aspect of its design, execution, and feeling, simply stuns.

I won’t tell you what the movie’s actually about, because one of its greatest pleasures is the way it twists your empathy around, the way it sneakily tells a bigger story even as it seems to be microscopically focused. You’ll think it could be one of the most dreadfully nihilistic films you’ve ever seen, but that’s only because you haven’t yet absorbed it in total. Suffice it to say the filmmakers, working off of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, know exactly what their movie is about, and orchestrate it with a precision of mood and technique that rivals a concerto with a million notes, all of them perfect.

Instead I will simply tell you where we begin, which is with a Texan named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a hunter out looking for game. What he finds is the blood-soaked aftermath of a drug deal gone bad, as well as a bag full of $2 Million. Moss is a man of unusual patience and smarts, he is just resourceful enough to think he can skip leaving well enough alone. And so he takes the money and begins to scheme how to get to freedom with it and his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald).

This sets in motion a series of predatory maneuvers among all the interested parties, but the predator among predators is Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a kind of perpetual-motion assassin. His most versatile tool is a pneumatic piston, a metal puncher connected to an air tank, used by ranchers to kill cattle, and used by Chigurh to punch holes in whatever stands between him and his objective.

He has a definite attitude about killing, but that attitude is impossible to sum up. One of his victims cries: “You don’t have to do this!” And a rational man would see that this is true, that what he is about to do is totally unnecessary. He responds by smiling, and saying “People always say the same thing.” Bardem (in an award-worthy performance) puts so many colors into that line, and that smile. He’s perplexed, or maybe disappointed, or frustrated that he can never make people understand his own inevitability. With his dark clothes, and queerly-mechanical walk, and the way his eyes always seem to be gleaming, he’s nothing less than a moving storm, a plague of savagery that just spreads further, and further, through every person who comes near him or the money.

And maybe Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) can sense this. Maybe that explains the laconic reserve with which he tracks the concentric circles of violence as they widen outward from that first crime scene. Here is a performance that is not as showy as Bardem’s villainy, but in many ways is its equal for the absoluteness of its many dimensions. We can see Bell doing his job almost helplessly – sure that the forces of chaos will not be stopped by his investigations, surprised that against all his expectations he is nearing retirement and he can still be shocked by the capacity of man for evil, but somehow never doubting that his cause is both futile, and just.

The movie is bookended by two speeches by Bell, the first about a young man he once arrested and saw to the gas chamber, a boy who admitted that he’d “been planning to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember.” The second, which is the secret to what this movie’s really about, I’ll leave you to discover. In both, listen to Jones’ way with the language. The way he seems to be standing, painfully, at a threshold, looking at the unknown, and horrors he will never forget, but trying to maintain the poise of his forefathers, wondering if they ever felt the same fear and uncertainty he does.

The Coens have always had an ear for dialogue, and often delight in conversations that sneak out from behind obstructions and circle towards an understanding rather than approach it directly. A long exchange between Chigurh and a gas station attendant reaches an unbelievable peak of menace without ever verbalizing a threat – it’s all in insinuation, and delivery, you watch with a helpless awe.

There’s so much more to No Country for Old Men than I can tell, about the relationships between loved ones, about the way storms look on the Texas horizon, about the ornery minimalism of Josh Brolin’s performance, even about a boot salesman who never forgets a sale. This is a film that simply does so much so gaspingly right that the list just grows the more you think about it. And you will think about it, and reflect on what it means. Strange that I can see so much insurmountable grimness, yet so much humor and hope and morality, in the same movie. The Coen brothers have played with all of these notes before, but never all together, or with such virtuosity.


  • What is scarier than Anton Chigurh standing out on the porch, checking the bottom of his shoes? Oh yeah. Nothing.

    Happy holidays, Nick. Reading your reviews reminds of Wolfman Jack in "American Graffiti". Always out there, keeping it real.

    By Anonymous Mike De Luca, at 6:46 AM  

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