Tuesday, March 13, 2012

No Country for Old Men

Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 11/22/07 w/ Additional Edits.

Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men is the story of a man who finds dead bodies in a shootout and a suitcase with two million dollars in cash. Suddenly, an investigation over the dead bodies is made by a sheriff while a killer is looking for his lost money. Written for the screen, produced, and directed by Joel & Ethan Coen, the film is a return to the crime films of their past work to study a war as it baffles an aging sheriff caught up in changing times. With an all-star cast that includes Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Kelly MacDonald, Woody Harrelson, Barry Corbin, Beth Grant, Tess Harper, Coen Brothers regular Stephen Root, and Tommy Lee Jones. No Country for Old Men is a haunting, visceral, and chilling film from the Coen Brothers.

It's 1980 in a desert in Texas as a man named Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is deer hunting as he hears gunshots from the other side of the desert. He walks into a slew of dead bodies with a man wounded asking for water. He then finds another dead man under a tree with a shiny pistol and a suitcase filled with two million dollars in cash. He returns home to his trailer park residence where his wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) was waiting for him. She wonders about the money he's just found as Llewellyn hopes he uses it for little things. Later that night, he wakes up returning to the scene of the crime hoping to help the wounded man only to be chased by a gang of Mexican drug dealers and a dog as he returns home telling Carla Jean to leave town and live with her mother (Beth Grant).

Meanwhile, a sociopathic killer named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is trying to find the lost money as he later kills his employers and others to find his money. After killing several people for their cars, he goes on the hunt for Llewellyn Moss as an investigation over the drug deal with dead bodies lying around is underway by a sheriff named Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). With his young deputy Wendell (Garret Dillahunt) assisting, they ponder on who did the deed while finding Llewellyn's truck. With Anton's bloody manhunt continues, Llewellyn is still evading him while wondering who is hunting him down. With the money now lost, it's up to a bounty hunter named Carson Wells to find the money for a businessman (Stephen Root) to recover from the botched drug deal.

After another near-encounter with Chigurh that becomes bloody, Llewellyn flees to Mexico where he is met by Wells who tells him about Chigurh. With Wells as Moss' only hope, he returns to the U.S. to be with Carla Jean who has been questioned by sheriff Bell about what happened. On the day he arrives, she calls Bell for help where suddenly, things become tragic as Bell is forced to ponder the changing times as he talks to his uncle Ellis (Barry Corbin) about the way the world works.

Returning to some of the crime elements in films like Blood Simple and Fargo, the Coen Brothers lean towards the novel by Cormac McCarthy about this simple story of a man who finds money only to be hunted by a killer with a sheriff trying to piece everything together. While little was reportedly changed from the original book to the Coens' adapted script including the dialogue, the story is definitely relevant to many of the Coen Brothers themes of symbolism and morality. Another theme that the film explore is sin, particularly greed as it's the catalyst for the film's plot. The money is the symbol of all greed with Chigurh, Moss, and Wells all wanting the money yet for different reasons. Wells wants it for the businessman while Moss is more of a simple man, and then there's Chigurh.

Anton Chigurh is a villain that is rarely seen in films. He’s violent, anti-social, remorseless, humorless, and certainly scary. While there is no clear motive on why he wants his money, he is a man that is willing to have it by any means necessary. No matter who he kills. He is certainly someone that has a presence where it's clear that once he's in a scene in the story, trouble is about to happen. Then there's Llewellyn Moss who is basically a simple man that has a bit of intelligence while knowing he's about to do something really stupid. Moss is a character audiences care about despite the fact he's a simple man.

Then there's the character of Ed Tom Bell, who begins the film with a voice-over narration about the way the world is changing for elders who couldn't keep up with the changing times. Bell is a man who seems content about his job and life yet has a few regrets. When he is faced with this investigation, it gives him a chance to do something good and maybe have a bit of redemption. Yet, his conflict isn't just this crime but action and cruelty of this crime that he is baffled by. It's the script by the Coens and their faithfulness to McCarthy's work that is amazing for its structure with the first act being about the found money and Chigurh's manhunt for Llewllyn, the second act is about that continued manhunt and Bell's confusion over the modern world. The third act is more about Bell and how he relates to things as well as loss. His loss isn't just about what happens but the world around him as he turns to his Uncle Ellis as he too is having trouble understanding the world.

The direction of the Coen Brothers is potent as ever with its use of locations shot in Texas and New Mexico. From its eye-weilding imagery to stylized scenery, Joel and Ethan Coen definitely create situations that wouldn't be shown in a Hollywood film. Notably the violence which acts as a sense of force and an element of surprise. Their take on the film's violence is visceral indeed from the opening sequences of Chigurh killing a deputy and then another man. For some scenes, the Coens know when not to show an act of killing even though the audience knows what was going to happen. The sense of tension and momentum throughout the film is superb with everything not being too fast or too slow. The pacing they use works on every level to convey the suspense. More importantly, the Coens' approach to storytelling with their compositions of scenes and presentation is insatiable.

One thing that a lot of audiences might be baffled about the film is its ending which is abrupt. What the Coens is emphasizing is the film's theme and most of all, it's title. It's about everything that has just happened and how one of its protagonist is dealing with everything. While that character may be rambling about something, it's only to reflect what the character is going through. It might seem confusing at first but once it's being replayed in the mind, it becomes understandable. That's what the Coens are trying to do while giving the audience something to think about in their own interpretations. The result overall is the Coen Brothers making a film that is haunting and as hypnotic as some of their previous work.

Longtime cinematographer Roger Deakins brings out some of his best camera work to date with eerie, dream-like photography style for many of the film's exterior sequences. Notably Llewellyn's chase in the desert as well as the nighttime scenes in Texas and Mexico. The interior sequences are done with amazing, low-light shades and darkness to give the film that haunting look. The cinematography of Deakins isn't just something that many cinematographers will love but also worthy of awards. The film's editing by the Coens under their Roderick Jaynes alias is also potent for their energetic, well-paced editing style to convey the suspense and tone of the film as Jaynes' work is amazing.

Production designer Jess Gonchor with art director John P. Goldsmith is excellent for its old-school, Texan look whether it's the cowboy shops, the trailer park home of the Moss', or the down-home look of Bell's home that is simple yet clean. The overall look in the production is amazing for its authenticity to convey what is America. Longtime costume designer Mary Zophres does some great work in the film's clothes with the use of cowboy hats for the characters of Bell, Moss, and Wells along with the dresses of Carla Jean Moss that are very simple. Longtime sound editor Skip Lievsay with sound designer Craig Berkey create a unique tone to the entire film for the fact that there's no film score played throughout the entire film. Instead, Lievsay and Berkey create sounds for the film's suspense and violence as their work is just amazing on every level. While longtime music composer Carter Burwell's work is minimal, he does create an eerie, ominous score with dense arrangements for the film's final credits.

The films casting by Ellen Chenoweth is amazing for notable small performances from Eduardo Antonio Garcia as the wounded man from the shootout, Zach Hopkins as the deputy killed early in the film, and Kit Gwin as Bell's secretary Molly. Other notable small performances from characters Barry Corbin and Beth Grant are superb with Corbin as the laconic Uncle Ellis and Grant in a funny role as Carla Jean's mother. Tess Harper is excellent in the role of Bell's wife who only appears in a few scenes but is a woman who is trying to understand her husband's alienation with the modern world. Coen Brothers regular Stephen Root is great in his brief performance as a businessman who hires Wells to track down the money while Garret Dillahunt is brilliant as Bell's young partner who scours around every crime scene asking Bell questions. Woody Harrelson's small role as Carson Wells is great for its laid-back humor and experience of a bounty hunter who knows Chigurh all too well and how he plays the game.

Scottish actress Kelly MacDonald is amazing as Carla Jean Moss, an innocent woman who is unaware of what her husband is trying to do despite her love for him. MacDonald does a great Texan accent while her performance is amazing for how she seeks help from Bell while having an amazing scene near the end about her own fate that shows her subtlety and restraint to everything that's happened to her. Josh Brolin is equally as great in the role of Llewellyn Moss, a simple man who doesn't know what he put himself through. Brolin's performance is very rugged and laconic as a Texan who knows he isn't the smartest man in the world while proving that he could go toe-to-toe with a psychopath like Chigurh. Brolin, who is having a breakout year with appearances in Robert Rodriguez's Grindhouse segment in Planet Terror, Ridley Scott's American Gangster, and Paul Haggis' n the Valley of Elah with Tommy Lee Jones as he is now destined for stardom.

Tommy Lee Jones is in masterful form as the wise Ed Tom Bell. Jones' performance is very grizzled and often with dead-pan humor that includes rambling stories about people he know. Yet, Jones performance isn't just hypnotic but also mesmerizing for the way he looks at the world and how he tries to do good. Tommy Lee Jones doesn't just earn another winning performance but one that most actor should look up to. Finally, there's Javier Bardem in what has to be his most chilling performance yet as Anton Chigurh. If there was a Hell-in-a-Cell match with Jason, Hannibal Lector, Freddy Krueger, and every other super-villain on film, Chigurh would win hands down. Bardem never goes over-the-top throughout his performance but his restraint is so eerie, it's definitely a performance that is unforgettable. While also sporting a Texan accent of sorts, Bardem definitely hides in character with a haircut that's almost comical until he starts killing. That's when he reveals he isn't funny and is all about business. Bardem rarely smiles in the film and if the Academy overlooks this performance, then the Oscars ain’t worth winning.

No Country for Old Men is a quintessential, harrowing, shocking film from Joel and Ethan Coen with a great cast that includes Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, and Kelly MacDonald. Fans of the Coen Brothers will no doubt rank this film up there with a lot of their many great films while those who loved the Cormac McCarthy novel will enjoy the film for its symbolism and themes. In the end, this is a film not for the faint of heart, especially for anyone who isn't into any kind of violence. Still, No Country for Old Men isn't just one of 2007's best films but it's a sign that the Coen Brothers are back in business.

© thevoid99 2012


Chip Lary said...

This is the Coens' movie where I depart from film critics the most. Is it well acted? Yes. Is it a good movie, especially the best movie of the year? Not at all. Not to me, anyway.

What seemed to come across to me, over and over again, while reading all the professional critics' reviews, was that they loved it precisely because it was so different because it didn't show any real conclusions to anything, even the movie itself.

Call me crazy, but I want a narrative with a conclusion in the movies I watch, even if that's "what's expected."

I felt There Will Be Blood was a much better movie than this one.

I've liked almost all the Coens' movies, but this is one of the few that I did not.

thevoid99 said...

I still think it's a brilliant film but the best film of that year?

Not really. I think Juno, There Will Be Blood, The Diving Bell & the Butterfly, Paranoid Park, and I'm Not There along with a few other films were much better.

Diana said...

Great review! I saw this movie when it came out and back then, I wasn't a film blogger and I didn't have the same patience or understanting for movies as I do know. I remember thinking it was a good movie, with a superb performance by Javier Bardem, but what struck me was the lack of music- it was so slow and boring at times! I should watch it again soon, but I won't, I have other ones on my mind :)

thevoid99 said...

@Diana-It's a film worth re-watching because it's very unconventional and not expected in a suspense film like this.

Notably because it builds up the suspense with different rhythms to what is expected.

The lack of score I thought was quite refreshing since it is about maintaining that sense of dread that occurs in the film.

Alex Withrow said...

I go back and forth with this and Fargo as my favorite Coen brothers film. Or Miller's Crossing. Or Blood Simple.


What's your fave Coen bros flick?

thevoid99 said...

@Alex-Barton Fink.