Wednesday, December 05, 2007

No Country For Old Men

No Country For Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2007) [10]

As this site and my film viewing have been intensified, my discretion has also become much more nuanced. 2006, for example, has yielded only one film to receive a ten. The simple fact of the matter is that what qualifies as a near perfect work of filmmaking has to be really good. No Country For Old Men is that good. A story that grabs you, partly exhilarating an yet jarring. Performances that are pitch perfect for the film. And more than anything, the superb execution of story, acting, editing, cinematography, and whatever else to show that the filmmaker has full control. The Coen brother exhibit all this in this, the best of 2007 so far, and their best film to date.
On the surface, the story deals with a drug deal gone bad and the violent consequences for those who happened to be involved in its details. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) just happens to stumble onto the bodies and the money, takes it, and a little while realizes he's done something he probably shouldn't have. Llewelyn is a typical noir hero, an ordinary man thrown into events and consequences way beyond his handling but somehow unaware of it. The pull of the two million dollars is too much for Llewelyn to just leave it alone; the inherent greediness of man, whether it be money or blood, is a key undercurrent of the film. Even from the outset, Llewelyn knows everything may not end smoothly but yet he still takes his chances. It's an intriguing element especially as he digs his grave even deeper. The man after Llewelyn and the money, Anton Chigurgh (Javier Bardem) will stop at nothing to do what needs to be done. Anton is one of the most mesmerizing and terrifying characters I've come across in film in quite some time. He is a man so psychologically twisted that a coin flip will decide whether a man lives or dies but yet it still operates as part of his moral fiber. As one character says, Chigurgh does have principles, no matter how they jet out from accepted morality. He sticks to his word and he will get the money back even if numerous others have to be murdered. Chigurgh exists in the film as a mythical figure, a ghost, as he almost miraculously slips away from situation after situation with almost no trace of him ever being there. Bardem imbues him with a eerie calmness, an emotional flatness that makes Anton almost not human but still a truly terrifying person. The film focuses on the cat and mouse game between the two, with Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) haplessly trailing behind. I won't give away too much of what happens but things turn out they way they were expected.
The Coens have been remarkably faithful to Cormac McCarthy's novel while still giving the picture a little more. Roger Deakins is masterful, capturing the desolate isolation of the deserts of West Texas, encasing the characters in a rugged, vast emptiness which allows for anything goes. What the Coens do so well is create a taut, thrilling storytelling while still capturing the meditative rumination of McCarthy's prose. Sherriff Bell is the moral signpost of the film, a man too old and not ready to adapt the new type of criminals like Chigurgh running around. Jones plays Bell as a man exasperated at the audacious violence of these crimes as well as a man resigned to know he can't handle what's in front of him. This leads into the ending, which I know a lot of people will say there isn't one. Those people should realize that films don't need to have a tidy resolution. There is no resolution to this story. Crime and violence like this are going to continue and what Bell and the film are trying to explain that there are always going to be people who feel that the times have passed them by wondering how they got that way. Most filmgoers have been so indoctrinated by crappy Hollywood films to expect and feel entitled to an easy, tidy resolution. If they can't handle that a film is going to be a little open-ended and challenging, I feel sorry for you. The ending makes sense in the grander metaphorical world of the film. To say it plainly, the Coens have made a film that stands far above almost anything else released this year.

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