No Country for Old Men, the new film from Joel and Ethan Coen, is an unquestionable return to form. It is scary, funny, moving, violent, and meaningful, in pretty much equal measure. The Coens' take on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name is a pairing as successful, as seamless, as delicious as that of chocolate and peanut butter.
Josh Brolin gives the finest of his four excellent performances this year as Llewelyn Moss. Moss is a struggling everyman who stumbles upon a circle of trucks and dead Mexicans in the desert -- a heroin deal gone bad. Real bad. The lone survivor asks Moss for some agua, and Moss ignores the request. He surveys the scene and eventually comes upon a suitcase filled with $2 million dollars. Moss' response upon finding the money? A simple "Yeah." It's a perfect moment in a movie packed with them. Moss takes the money and returns home to his trailer and his wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald). Soon, his conscience begins to nag at him, and he decides to head back to the scene of the crime to give the dying man a drink. A compassionate decision, but not, as you can probably imagine, an intelligent one.
Javier Bardem plays Anton Chigurh (start to say Chicago and then growl and you're close to the pronunciation). I'll leave his specific involvement in the proceedings up to you to figure out, but just know that he really wants that $2 million. Moss will come to refer to Chigurh as "the ultimate badass," and that's about right. Chigurh is a classic screen villain, the kind we haven't seen in far too long. Every time he appears on screen, cattle stunner in tow, it just makes your heart sink -- somebody is going down. Much like Hannibal Lecter, the guy is a vicious, remorseless killer, but he has a strangely sensible logic and one can't help but be seduced by him. Bardem, sporting a Prince Valiant haircut, gives a flawless performance here, one that will likely be noticed come Oscar time. He completely disappears into Chigurh.
Bardem is as unsettling, unpredictable, and strangely hilarious as the film itself. No Country brings the Coen boys back to a tone they do better than almost anybody -- "Laugh or Squirm." Watching the film, you're always on the edge of doing one or the other -- frequently both at the same time. Much of that delightful uncertainty comes from Bardem's outstanding work.
Tracking both Moss and Chigurh is Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, our narrator and moral compass. The "Old Men" of the title refers to Bell and men like him. Bell can't stomach the downward spiral of society, he can't comprehend the evil that men do, and his disbelief doesn't stop there. "It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners," Bell says at one point. "Any time you quit hearin' 'sir' and 'ma'am,' the end is pretty much in sight." The film is set in 1980 -- a choice that seems random until the movie's theme becomes clear. What would Bell have to say about the sad state of the world today?
Joining the hunt is Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), a half-assed bounty hunter sent out by a mysterious businessman (Stephen Root) to get that cash. This thread, while entertaining, didn't seem particularly essential to me, but it helps to complicate the plot, and the Coens have always seemed much more interested in complicating matters than resolving them. Keep your eye on that $2 million, though it won't do you much good. Ethan Coen recently told USA Today: "My definition of a bad movie is one that's predictable. We don't really care where the hell the money goes."
The Coen style tends to be hyper-verbal, but some of the most effective sequences here are completely wordless -- what Hitchcock called "pure cinema." At a time when "horror" has become nameless guys screaming in traps to pumping Reznor rip-off music, the Coens remind us that very little is more terrifying than silence. There are some hushed pursuit scenes here that are as exhaustingly suspenseful as such sequences get. I've been saying this since Raising Arizona -- if the Coens ever decide to make an action picture, it will blow peoples' minds.
Major props must be given to the Coens' long-time cinematographer Roger Deakins, equally masterful with both expansive vistas and cramped hotel rooms. What he did for snow in Fargo (which can't really be overstated), he does for desert here. Indoors, his use of shadow and light recalls the very best of Hitchcock. There are shots and scenes in No Country that are worthy of extensive study.
No Country plays like a Coen Brothers "greatest hits" film. Perceptive fans will notice many nods, intentional or not, to their previous work. The whole movie plays like a close sibling to their stunning debut, Blood Simple. The speech given by an El Paso Sheriff (Rodger Boyce) to Bell sounds a lot like Frances McDormand's "There's more to life than a little bit of money" monologue in Fargo. And several moments play like darker mirrors of Raising Arizona scenes: A close-call Brolin dog attack is awesome indeed, but the Coens played roughly the same trick with Nicolas Cage in Arizona. There's a chilling sequence here between Chigurh and a shopkeeper that will give Arizona fans deja vu. And Bardem's relentless and unfeeling Chigurh recalls Arizona's Leonard Smalls, right down to shooting at tiny animals as he tears down the highway.
Are the Coens ripping themselves off? Not hardly. They're reasserting themselves. These guys have created some of the most memorable moments in modern film, they've earned the right to dust them off and make them crackle all over again.
No Country will not be universally adored. It's one of the more willfully obtuse films in recent memory. The plot, with the money and the drugs and the Mexicans, is sort of left in "choose your own adventure" territory. Much time is spent on scenes that don't have much to do with the story, but hugely important confrontations are treated as insignificant. In some cases, major incidents are not even shown to the viewer. I'll put it this way -- if you weren't a fan of the Sopranos finale, this may not be your cup of tea.
It was my cup of tea. No Country for Old Men features a trio of exceptional performances, is overflowing with memorable moments, and though it may not be the Coens' best, it is easily one of the finest films of 2007 -- already a pretty fantastic year for cinema. I saw it at an advance screening earlier in the week, and I've been eagerly anticipating its official release today, so I can see it again. You might want to buy a ticket for the 7:00 and the 10:00 show. It's that kind of good.