Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Worthy Best Picture Focusing On The Effects, Not The Causes: No Country For Old Men!

The Good: Great acting, Interesting characters, Good pacing
The Bad: Minutia, DVD bonus features
The Basics: A great, dark, often disturbingly funny, film, No Country For Old Men puts an ordinary man on the run from a psychopath sent to recover two million dollars he ended up with.

Last year, I started a new program at my local library. Every two weeks, my local library screened movies that won the Best Picture Oscar. My local librarian asked for ideas for programs now that the library has a film license and it is what I came up with for her. For our first night, we watched the prior year's Best Picture Oscar winner, No Country For Old Men.

Based upon a novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men was adapted to screen by Ethan and Joel Coen, the brothers who brought the world to Fargo. This review is of the film, not the novel and having not read the novel, there will be no comparative analysis. And while this film was not a perfect film, it was one that was worthy of the Best Picture Oscar and it stacked up well, certainly against some of the other Best Picture winners (some of which I have outright despised).

In the aftermath of a prisoner escape and a drug deal that ended in a bloodbath, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell begins an investigation into the connection between Llewelyn Moss - the only man to walk away from the drug deal - and Anton Chigurh. Moss, not a participant in the shootout, merely discovered the bodies, tracked one of the participants and ended up with a case holding two million dollars of drug money. Having returned to the scene of the crime, Moss attempted to do the right thing - save the life of one of the Mexicans who was dehydrating - only to become a target himself.

Sending his wife away (haplessly into the hands of the Mexican drug dealers who are looking for the money), Llewelyn is relentlessly stalked by Chigurh, a flat-out psychopath who is armed with a pneumatic bolt and a shotgun. As bounty hunters are called in to find Moss and the money, Chigurh hunts Moss, the bounty hunters and his employer indiscriminately, while Sheriff Bell becomes more and more distressed over the way the case is headed.

No Country For Old Men is a bloody, graphic drama and what is likely to frustrate most people about it is not that, but rather how the film is about effects, not reconstructing events. So, for example, the shootout that Llewelyn stumbles upon, is long over and the viewer is never treated to the actual action. No, the story is told, much like a silent film, by Moss walking among the bodies and wrecked vehicles and silently putting it all together. In this fashion, the Coen Brothers directed a true masterwork of details. Attentive viewers will get all of the information they need from flat tires, bulletholes and body positions.

In fact, what robs No Country For Old Men of perfection is in the details that the Coen Brothers get wrong. I can live with the way the sun rises insanely quickly as Llewelyn Moss flees the Mexicans who are after him at night. Having been to the Southwest, the sun changes night to day with a speed that is impressive. But after laying out an aftermath that tells a clear story in details, that the Coen Brothers clearly used two different takes to get Moss into the riverbed as he flees is terrible in that the sun is shown both on the horizon Moss is fleeing into and behind his pursuers as he flees. This is unspeakably sloppy for a film trading on details.

My only other beef with the movie is its presentation on DVD: No Country For Old Men appears with three short featurettes that detail the adaptation from the book and the making of the film. There is no commentary track, no deleted scenes and for a film that is as dense and intriguing as this one, viewers deserve more for their permanent collections.

That said, this is a legitimately great film in the three major categories by which I judge films: plot, character and acting. The plot seems simple in many ways, until one considers what the movie is truly about. While it initially appears that this is a simple, if slow, chase film, No Country For Old Men is less about the chase and more about the decline of civilization and the effects that random acts of violence have upon individuals and society.

To that end, important events are not shown in the film. There is no need to reconstruct the crimes Chigurh is brought in on, the shootout in the desert or even the death of a significant character which is not shown. The movie is about erosion and decay, watching the mold spread, not the laying of the spores. In that way, the film is dark, creepy and preoccupied with mood in such a way that makes is undeniably horrific and compelling. It is also not for children or those who are squeamish. Despite omitting key scenes on screen, No Country For Old Men has quite a bit of on-screen violence and gore (usually from gun violence).

As far as character goes, there are three essential characters in the film: Moss, Bell and Chigurh. Sheriff Bell, who is arguably the character the themes of the film converge around, is not the most intelligent or stalwart police officer ever. For sure, he is good and decent, but he is not relentless, certainly not in the way either Moss or Chigurh are. Instead, he sees the world changing and rather than confront it, he allows this case to be his breaking point and his surrender represents a fundamental shift in the priorities of society. It is not noble, we infer, to die for the cause. Neither is it noble to give up and let evil walk away, but what No Country For Old Men might well be arguing is that nobility itself is dead.

Anton Chigurh is, perhaps, one of the best, most uncompromising villains in recent cinema. Unmotivated by anything other than dark will, he is monolithic in his quest for Llewelyn, the money and the cause he might (or might not) see as righteous. He believes himself to be the ultimate hunter, the one tool that ought to be used to find Moss and the money. As such, he's not motivated by much more than a survival instinct and is not much of a talker. Still, he rules this film and from the moment he first appears on screen, there is no doubt in the viewer's mind that he is a stone cold killer.

Llewelyn Moss is a pretty classic antihero. Stumbling upon the case filled with two million dollars that he knows came from a drug deal gone south, Moss takes the money and it takes him a while to go back and do the right thing. In fact, trying to save the life of the lone survivor of the massacre is done against his better instincts and what gets him into so much trouble. Still, he does his best to keep his wife safe and there is some honor in his attempt to get away with both his life and the money, no matter how ill gotten the gains.

From that perspective, Josh Brolin, who plays Moss, is to be celebrated. His time on screen is electric and the viewer empathizes most. Unlike Tommy Lee Jones' Sheriff Bell, who we want to be heroic, we simply want Brolin's Moss to get away. Brolin plays Moss perfectly in the first half hour as a quiet tracker and he has the bearing of a man with experience hunting and observing. Brolin is upright, has great - subtle - body language for the strong, silent types and his ability to quietly track and observe, to walk through and with a look point out the important details makes much of the film work. Brolin provides a distinctly different performance from his other roles, like in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (click here for that review!).

It is easy to see, though, why Javier Bardem has received so much praise - as well as the Best Supporting Actor award - for his role as Chigurh. Bardem quickly creates a memorable screen psychopath and the only comparison for his performance would be that of Steve Railsback as "Duane Barry." Like Railsback in that role, Bardem uses his voice and eyes to emote in ways that are far more menacing than waving a gun or yelling ever could be. He is the quiet killer and his role as the unyielding Chigurh is frightening and uniform.

Anyone looking for a great, violent film focusing on the decline of society will find something to love in the complex, layered No Country For Old Men.

For other films that include gunplay and bounty hunters, please check out my reviews of:
The Bounty Hunter
Attack Of The Clones

As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, which is available by clicking here!


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page for an organized list!

© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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