Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Coen Brothers' new thriller is a masterful example of genre filmmaking and much more

No Country for Old Men
(Ethan Coen & Joel Coen, USA, 122 minutes)
Opens today

A magnificent return to form for Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men is a virtuoso piece of genre filmmaking. Oh, but it so much more. Most of the film's running time is devoted to formulating a neo-noir Western in the same vein as their debut film Blood Simple (The opening sequence, a montage of Texan landscapes against a voice-over of down-home philosophy, directly mirrors their first film). With this extended passage, the Coens show how masterful they are at setting character, mood and location in a confined amount of time, and the resulting sequences are some of the most nerve-wracking, intense (and sometimes surprisingly humorous) suspense scenes to appear on film in quite some time.

The focus on pure storytelling and keen sense of pacing are enough to make a great thriller, and No Country for Old Men is first and foremost that, with the Coen Brothers using a novel by Cormac McCarthy to explore one of their favorite themes: greed and its effects on men. Once the main conflict has been resolved and the threads tied together, though, the film becomes an allegorical spin on the plot through which it's gone, and suddenly, it becomes a rumination on the nature of evil and its power to overwhelm even the best of men. It's here that No Country for Old Men transcends its genre trappings in unexpected, profound ways.

After the opening, vitally significant narration (If you miss it, you might as well wait for the next showing), a deputy brings a mysterious man named Anton Chigurh (a frightening Javier Bardem) into the police station, where the mountain of a man strangles the deputy to death and steals his cruiser. He carries an air tank with him, a hose connecting the tank to a nozzle, and we see how he uses it soon after, as he steals an unlucky motorist's car. Meanwhile, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin, in a strong performance that relies almost entirely on reaction) is hunting in the desert. He stumbles upon the site of a drug deal gone terribly wrong -- only one man has survived, begging Llewelyn for water.

Llewelyn tracks down who should be the last man standing and discovers a bag full of over $2 million cash. As any sensible innocent caught up in a moment of greed would, he takes the money. After returning home to his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), he's taken with guilt late in the night and returns to the scene to bring the dying man some water. No good deed goes unpunished, as there are, of course, people who want that money, including Chigurh, who hunts Llewelyn while Sheriff Ed Bell (Tommy Lee Jones, solid and sad with the weight of the world) follows the resulting carnage.

Note the efficient way the Coens set up these characters. There's a single scene between Llewelyn and Carla Jean before the chase gets underway, but in it, we see the honesty in their relationship. He doesn't lie about the guns he's taken or the money he's found, although he is gentlemanly enough to keep the gruesome details to himself. There's also only one scene between Bell and his wife (Tess Harper), and their relationship is solidified with two lines of dialogue ("Don't get hurt," she says; "Never do," he responds). Bell's professionalism is contrasted to the wide-eyed inexperience of his deputy Wendell (Garret Dillahunt), who can't help but stating the obvious.

Chigurh is a different matter, a man of action, who seems to kill indiscriminately but allows the clerk at a gas station to live because he wins a coin toss. Both Bell and Chigurh's reflections are seen in Llewelyn's television, ominously tying the two men together. Once the characterizations are out of the way, the plot sets the characters running. Llewelyn escapes some thugs (and, in dark hilarity, an incredibly persistent dog); Chigurh obtains a receiver that tracks the location of the money. Llewelyn hides out in a motel; Chigurh uses Llewelyn's license plate to track down his trailer house (Carla Jean has gone to stay with her mother) and uses his phone bill to start on the right track.

The plotting here is airtight, and the screenplay by the Coens makes sure we understand each step that Llewelyn takes to hide the money and himself and that Chigurh takes to find them. Both men are resourceful. Llewelyn hides the money in an air duct in his hotel room, and Chigurh has a seemingly otherworldly sense of knowing where to go. As a result, the chase and cat-and-mouse confrontations and near-confrontations are intelligent, but more importantly, they have common sense. The Coens show us the steps as each character gets closer or further away in the larger scheme of things. When they come together -- or, more often, almost do -- we know where each one is and how that relates to the other man.

There is no music score accompanying the film. Scenes play out to the ambient sounds the locales -- approaching footsteps, an unanswered phone ringing down the hall, gunshots through thin walls, and, in one fearsome moment, the unscrewing of a light bulb. Roger Deakins' moody cinematography adds immensely to that sense of unease. There's a simply magnificent shootout in the streets, and while the film is violent and bloody, it's honest about the results of that violence (The Coens have never shied away from the effects of a bullet).

Eventually, we stop seeing the violence -- only the aftermath (and, in one important instance, not even that). Another tracker played by Woody Harrelson enters, and his methods are juxtaposed with Chigurh's -- just as successful but nowhere near as ruthless. As terrible as Chigurh is, he has a deranged code of ethics. If he promises to kill someone, he will no matter what circumstances have unfolded since. There's a great scene between the two trackers where Chigurh lays out his methods, and another, later scene where we see those principles brought to the extreme.

Once the central plot is resolved, the story imperceptibly becomes metaphor; greed is the thematic center. We witness a young boy literally giving the shirt off his back only to end up fighting with his friend over $100. Questions remain: Is Chigurh a psychopath, a ghost, a personification of pure evil, or all of the above? For the thriller plot, he's the first. To Bell, he's the second, as we see in a haunting scene in a hotel room late in the film. To really understand the implications of the epilogue, he must be the third. Bell and his experience become the focus of the afterward; he's a man confounded by the horrible things he's seen beginning to question his role in society.

Bell's final monologue, a recollection of a pair of dreams about his dead father, perfectly ties the thematic clues of the opening narration together, and the weight of his unconscious conclusion is staggering. Joel and Ethan Coen have made some damn fine films, and this is undoubtedly their best. A fatalistic thriller with a brain and a conscience about the unconscionable deeds of humanity, No Country for Old Men chills and cuts straight to the bone. In almost seven years as a critic, I have never said this within a review, and here it is: This film is a masterpiece. --Mark Dujsik