Sunday, December 23, 2007

Review: No Country for Old Men

Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Release Date: November 21, 2007
Running time: 122 min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributors: Miramax Films, Paramount Vintage

“It’s a mess, ain’t it, sheriff?” – Wendall

“If it ain’t, it’ll do ‘til the mess gets here.” – Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, No Country for Old Men

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

A welder, a hired gun, and an almost retired sheriff walk into a West Texas town. Each of the men is running. What they are running from, and toward, quietly becomes the foundation for the tapestry that is brilliantly woven in what is quite possibly the best movie this year.

No Country for Old Men, the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, is adapted from the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. The movie tells a fairly simple story. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) opens the movie in voiceover, explaining why he is soon to retire. His time in this job is now past as the region, and the world, has become violent beyond his understanding. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), the welder, happens on a collection of corpses and a dying Mexican in the apparent aftermath of a drug deal gone sour. He finds a case with $2 million in cash and takes it home. Meanwhile, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the hired gun, has just escaped from police custody and steals a car after killing the driver. Chigurh’s introduction accomplishes two things. One, it introduces us to the unique weapon he uses throughout the movie, and two, it establishes him as an instantly classic movie villain. In any given situation, he does what he feels he has to do, even though without having prior knowledge of that situation - he operates with almost random calculation. His methods may be cold and brutal but to him they are justified. Moss finds the cash and soon realizes he is being chased for it; Chigurh is the man hired to get the money back, and Sheriff Bell is the man trying to make sense of the whole bloody affair.

In less capable hands, this movie could have easily fallen victim to the gruesomely tired cliché of “someone chasing someone for money after a drug deal gone bad.” In fact, when non-movie watching friends ask me about my favorite movie of the year and I tell them about No Country, they inevitably ask, “What is it about?” My answer is usually met with complacency. To simply explain the plot of this movie doesn’t do it justice. To properly appreciate it, you actually have to experience the story unfolding before your eyes.

What is the difference between a good movie and a great movie? What makes a great movie a classic? In short, it has to engage the audience. Yes, story, performances, direction to be sure, but what really makes a movie like No Country for Old Men work so well is the way it flows. The pacing of this film is pitch-perfect. There doesn’t seem to be one wasted minute here and every scene serves a purpose in the greater good of the story. I am happy every time I see a movie that isn't edited in the quick cut, MTV style. Sometimes that is fine, but to make a remarkable and lasting impression, I want the story to unfold on its own – almost in real time. That is the only way to truly build tension. No Country not only accomplishes that to an almost perfect degree, but it does so with such ease that you don’t even realize it until after the movie is over.

The movie is far more than a game of cat and mouse. Chigurh and Moss carry the film by showing us how they each handle desperation. As Chigurh gets closer to him, Moss begins to take on the characteristics of his pursuer. He loses sight of what started him down this path to begin with and ends up in a situation that is obviously over his head. If only he were aware that he is not cut out for this lifestyle. Chigurh, on the other hand, was born to this life. There is a great line by James Gandolfini in True Romance where he explains to Patricia Arquette what it feels like to kill a person. The first few times, he says, had a real impact on him but ... “Now… shit. Now I do it just to watch their fuckin' expression change.” You get the feeling that Chigurh belongs to the same school of thought, only he's a few classes ahead of Gandolfini’s character. There is no other scene in the movie where this is more evident than when he goes into the gas station and talks to the store owner. You feel the tension of that entire scene and know that had the coin toss ended differently, he would have carried out whatever came to him in that moment without a second’s hesitation. Throughout the encounter, he just toys with him until he becomes bored with the conversation. That smugness should not be mistaken for instability; it's the random calculations of a cold-blooded killer. And Bardem plays him perfectly.

This movie isn’t about who did what to whom and how; it's about why. Sheriff Bell, Moss, and Chigurh do everything in the movie in the name of justice. Maybe greed initiated each of their respective journeys, but justice is what takes to the finish. What makes that concept interesting is that while each man is motivated by the same thing, each of them has a vastly different idea of what that means.

There is a lot of ambiguity in the last 20 minutes of the movie. Why doesn't more happen in the hotel when Sheriff Bell goes by himself at the end? What really happens to Moss’s wife when Chigurh finally shows up? But that's fine; the story works better when everything isn’t spelled out and packaged for us. Viewer interpretation and continued debate are just more reasons why this movie has been, and will continue to be, talked about for months to come. The ending of the movie is perfect – a great companion and bookend to the whole story – even if it took me a few days to think so.

The Rub:
Sometimes a movie comes along that simply blows you away. After I first saw it, I couldn’t shake it for a long time. It stays with you not because you are trying to figure it all out (although that may be part of it), but like any piece of great work, you appreciate the story and how it is told. Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, and yes, even Josh Brolin all deserve Oscar nods for this film. That will go nicely with the Best Director and Best Picture nominations they are almost guaranteed to get. This is not only the best film of the year, but the best film the Coen Brothers have ever made, and they made Fargo. So that’s got to count for something, right?

And there’s the rub.

**** out of ****

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