Thursday, December 13, 2007

'No Country for Old Men' is exceptional in every way

“No Country for Old Men” has already been named the best film of the year by the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critic Circle, but that’s likely only the beginning of accolades to be lauded on the Coen Brothers latest film. It is an exceptional piece of filmmaking.

This marks Joel and Ethan Coen’s first true adaptation, although "O Brother, Where Art Thou" borrowed themes from "The Odyssey." "No Country for Old Men" is an extremely faithful reworking of Cormac McCarthy’s novel about a man who stumbles upon a satchel of money from a drug deal gone wrong and the unrelenting killer that comes after him.

Whole sequences unfold exactly as they do on the page, and passages of McCarthy’s rich dialogue from the minute to the lengthy appear nearly verbatim. It is refreshing to see filmmakers be respectful to their source material, but the Coens aren’t blinded by their revere of McCarthy’s words.

In many ways they have improved upon McCarthy’s novel. They have distilled the best parts of the novel, removed scenes that didn’t work, clarified the unclear and tightened the pacing in the cat-and-mouse game that ensues between Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin, “American Gangster”) and his pursuer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, “The Sea Inside.”)

On the level of plot, “No Country for Old Men” is simple. Llewelyn takes the money and Chigurh comes after him. It is the execution that is so astounding. The Coens have always been fine filmmakers, but something about the darker side of humanity brings out the best in them. Like “Blood Simple” and “Fargo,” this is an atmospheric, moody piece of filmmaking that lingers in the mind.

The cinematography by Roger Deakin creates sequences of growing, quiet tension. There are small moments like a single lightning bolt cracking during a chase through a desert and a looming shadow in a doorway that stick with you.

The cast is uniformly excellent, but the performance that is sure to be talked about for years to come is Bardem’s Chigurh, one of the best screen villains in years. Bardem — a Spanish actor who is largely unknown by American audiences — is menacing, but never over-the-top. In fact, if anything he is subdued. There is glint of joy in is eye as he gambles with people's life at the flip of a coin that is more frightening than anything you’ll see in splatter films like “Saw” or “Hostel.”

Don’t be mistaken though. This is a violent, bloody movie, but this isn’t violence for violence’s sake. McCarthy and the Coens are attempting to say something about our society. There is a questioning of how things have gotten where they are in the world. There are no answers provided to these questions. Everything isn’t tied up neatly in the end. Audiences well trained to have a sense of closure in their films will surely be let down, but the ending is exactly what it needs to be.

The film’s questioning nature takes the form of Tommy Lee Jones’ Ed Tom Bell. Bell is a weary sheriff worn down by a society he no longer understands. This is hardly a new archetype in fiction, but Jones brings levels of nuance to the character that weren’t on the page. Jones has played law enforcement figures for decades, but there’s something different about his performance here. Simple put, he is great.

This isn’t to short Brolin, who after bouncing around Hollywood as a B-actor for 20 years final got some juicy roles this year. His work here and in “American Gangster” put him in a new league. Like with Jones, the word that comes to mind is nuanced.

There is no showboating in the cast, even when Woody Harrelson and Stephen Root pop up in the latter part of the film to provide a bit of comic relief. And the movie is funny. Pitch black, but funny. After all, when faced with the terrible, as Jones’ Bell suggests, you have to laugh because “there ain’t a whole lot else you can do.”

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