Sunday, January 20, 2008

No Country For Old Men

The verdict: Fargo's Texan cousin, featuring less comedy, and a very very bad man. I may be a self-confessed Coen-head, but this is a thoroughly entertaining movie of genuine quality.

The rating: 8/10

Looking at the cast and crew involved in 'No Country For Old Men', you'd be forgiven for wondering just how good this movie could be... First, the Coen Brothers. They've been going through what by their standards would be called a bit of a lean spell lately, but that's only because their first eight movies were modern classics. ('Big Lebowski' and 'Fargo' are PCMR's personal favourites.) If the Coen's played football, they'd be Brazilians in the 70's: self-assured, accomplished, and at the top of their game. In more recent years however, much like the Brazilians, the Coens have inexplicably been finding it difficult to replicate former glories... (Cue gravel-throated trailer voice - Ed) Until now, that is.

Josh Brolin has the lead, and blow me down if he hasn't had a great twelve months. As if 'American Gangster' wasn't a big enough movie to be in, he had to go and work with the Coens as well, the big show off. (And if that wasn't enough, Oliver Stone has recently signed him up to play George Bush!) This is a far more interesting part for Brolin than his American Gangster role however, and he does admirably well, playing as he does the regular John, a cowboy named Moss, who stumbles across two million dollars in the desert wilderness.

Next we have Javier Bardem, who plays the remorseless Anton Chigurh. Regular readers may or may not remember, but last year, PCMR sang the praises of Bardem for his performance in 'Before Night Falls', and I reckon he's a genuine star on the rise. This guy is a proper actor, and has been working for many a year in Spanish language productions. The quirky 'Live Flesh' and the brilliantly melancholy 'El Mar Adentro' are recommended Bardem performances, but in an inspired piece of casting, Bardem plays the very very bad man in this movie, and to chilling effect. Bardem spends almost the entire movie in pursuit of Moss and the two million dollars.

And then there's Tommy Lee Jones, who by is hitting a real professional peak at this late stage of his career, with this movie, and an Oscar nomination for 'In the Valley of Elah' to boot. With a face more wrinkled than a prune in a hot bath, he is the grizzled Southern sheriff, a man named Ed Tom, and he provides the narration - and soul - of the movie.

The movie is essentially a pursuit, with Jones' sheriff monitoring the chase from a safe distance. Chigurh (Bardem) sweeps slowly through the southern countryside like an virus, never in a rush, but remorselessly killing pretty much everyone he comes into contact with. Of real note is an inspired scene in a remote gas station, where Bardem makes faintly threatening small-talk with the owner. Afer a few moments, it becomes chillingly evident that the sub-text to the conversation is whether or not Chigurh should kill this man, and his answers may help him survive. Bardem is frightening.

For appearance's sake, Roger Deakins provides the colour and light, as he does on all the Coen Brothers movies, and he manages to work on two scales, creating some truly memorable moments on the wide dusty Southern plains, and ensuring the walls close in around the audience in the tautly crafter indoor scenes. The moments in the chase where Bardem and Brolin are in close proximity to each other are also perfectly staged and paced to heighten the tension.

As for sheriff Ed Tom, well, as his heartfelt narration of the opening sequence explains, he remembers a time when a sheriff didn't even need to carry a gun. The encroachment of Chigurh's violent crimes 'ain't just one thing', but are part of a 'rising tide', a wind of change that seems to be sweeping simple men like him aside. As an aging law man, he feels ill equipped to fight this type of bad guy, but will he eventually catch up with Chigurh? If so, can he win the fight against this bad bad man?

Bardem is fantastically evil, and should win the best supporting actor Oscar this year if there's any justice (which of course there isn't - Ed). Brolin is also very good as the honest cowboy, understandably taking a risk that might put him and his wife (Kelly MacDonald) in danger, but might also set them up for life. Jones is the heart and soul of the movie, but 'No Country For Old Men' is so densely packed with memorable moments, idiosyncratic turns of phrase, beautifully framed images, it is as immersive as a movie can get.

Some may baulk at the 140 minute running time, but not I. The relatively sudden ending had its critics in the cinema I attended, but I took this as a clear indication that a second viewing is in order. Like so much of the Coen's best work, this movie deserves it.

1 comment:

patrick said...

just saw no country for old men; it's unassumingly unconventional and yet (thankfully) never over the top. the Coen brothers deserve their oscars, well done indeed.

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