No Country for Old Men

We went to see the new Coen brothers film this week, the adaptation of Pulitzer Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy's novel, No Country For Old Men. I didn't know anything about the plot, or the names of any of the actors, I just knew it was a Coen brothers film and that was good enough for me. I think I was expecting something along the lines of The Hudsucker Proxy, or maybe The Big Lebowski; quirky and funny with some mischief thrown in, but nothing that would require a hanky or a bottle of Prozac. This film is more like Fargo, in that it's dark and things happen randomly with ill effect. That doesn't make a bad film, on the contrary, it's very good, but I'd have been better prepared if I'd at least thought about bringing my hanky.

No Country tells the story of three men, a sheriff, a welder and a hired killer who doesn't need a contract, or even much of a reason, to kill someone. Sheriff Bell is played by Tommy Lee Jones, and is the first character we meet as the film opens. We hear him in a voiceover as he talks about how the nature of crime has changed over the years as we watch a montage of stark southwestern landscapes. Next we meet the killer, a guy named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem,) who is brought in by a deputy as we finish the monologue from the sheriff and right away we find out what kind of movie this is as Chigurh, without the slightest sign of difficulty, fluidly slips his legs through the cuffs so his hands are in front of him and strangles the deputy with the very tools used to bring him in. This is a chilling, violent, bloody scene that I found more horrifying than most films billed as horror – I could barely breathe; I just sat there wishing I could look away from the screen.

The third character is Llewellyn Moss, a welder played by Josh Brolin, who is hunting when we meet him. He sees the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad through his binoculars and walks out through the desert to the scene, finding one surviving man, who asks for water, and a satchel filled with money, two million dollars worth. After doing a little reconnoitering, he goes home with the money and comes back to the scene in the middle of the night with a bottle of water. The remaining man has been shot through the head and some men in a truck come after the on foot Moss, armed with guns and a big scary dog. When Moss leaps into a river to escape they send the dog into the water after him and begin a chase that eventually winds its way into Mexico before coming back to the United States.

Despite the drugs, the crooks, the guns, the killings and the threats that permeate this film it's definitely not your average gangster story. It's wickedly funny with sharp, natural dialogue and homey wisdom mixed with bizarre communications from the land of the crazies delivered by Chigurh. The conclusion is so far from typical that there were exclamations from all over the theater when we saw it (my own was "No way that's the ending!") and the official movie website has links to various discussions about the possible meanings of the finish. (But please, don't click on any of these if you haven't yet been to see the thing because you'll do yourself a terrible disservice if you read any spoilers beforehand. It would be a dreadful shame to waste the emotional possibilities this wonder of a movie has to offer, not to mention the intellectual joy of it. We saw No Country over the weekend and we were still talking about it as this column went to press Friday morning.)

There's so much about this film to love that I almost don’t know where to start. The cinematography is incredible, bringing the stark desert landscape of West Texas practically into your lap, with some really intriguing shots that are critical to the themes of the movie. The story is terrific; a very faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel, or at least as faithful as a film can ever be. The Coens have made some interesting choices that differ from the book, choices that make the movie better and more intriguing. I can't tell you much about the soundtrack because I don't remember it and I've heard from people who swear there isn't one, that there is no music in the film. I can't say either way but if there isn't any music that's a very interesting choice also because sometimes you can tell what's going to happen onscreen just from the music. By removing the music you add a whole new mysterious element.

I was unfamiliar with Javier Bardem, who plays the ultra-creepy Chigurh, but he did such a good job becoming this chilling character that I want to see some of his other work. The character of Chigurh can be interpreted as a trope, the trope of unstoppable evil, and I read that the filmmakers had some concerns that he not be too much like the Terminator, another unstoppable killing machine. I'm a big fan of the first Terminator movie but that robot never came to mind as I was watching No Country, instead I was reminded of an earlier monster, the one created by Frankenstein who spoke two languages and had its own weird code of honor. There's more than a touch of the supernatural about Chigurh who doesn't let anything, or anyone, get in the way of his goals. If you want a taste of just how terrifying this man is go to the website and click on accolades and give yourself the shivers. He's the last man you want calling you friend-o.

Josh Brolin is remarkable in his role as the likable Llewellyn Moss, a man we can't help but root for. I was surprised to read that his agent had to lobby hard before he got the part, because he's perfect for it, a decent man with a core of steel that helps him through his trials. I was also interested to read that Mr. Brolin was injured during filming, breaking a collarbone, and didn't tell the directors because he was worried he would lose the part. As his character is injured almost in the first chase scene (running barefoot across the Texas landscape isn't exactly good for the feet) his real life injury adds poignancy to his performance, giving another layer to this stoic character who carries on in the face of adversary.

Tommy Lee Jones gives another stellar performance in the part of the baffled and battered sheriff, constantly confused by the state of the world as brought to him by each morning's headlines. Every new atrocity piles onto the one before it, leaving him ever more tired and unsure of his place in this new world. He's got some of the best dialogue in the film, most of it funny. Woody Harrelson has a small part that he plays to a tee; a man hired by the same man who hires Chigurh to get the money back. The delightful and very talented Kelly MacDonald also deserves a mention as Llewellyn's young wife Carla Jean Moss, a feisty Texan with an excellent brain.

The biggest problem I have with No Country for Old Men is how few people have gone to see the movie. It's been playing for seven weeks now and had grossed a little over 42.5 million when we went to press, which is less than Alvin and the Chipmunks made in its first weekend. I think part of the problem is the trailer for No Country was confusing and it's difficult to sum up the quality of the film in just a few words. If you've got the slightest plans to see this film on the big screen, where it belongs, you should go and see it right away because eight weeks in the theater is a very long time these days. I can't guarantee it'll be there much longer. Significantly better trailers than the spot that ran on television are available here, labeled trailers one and three. If you'd like a copy of the screenplay in PDF you can get it here

One-Paragraph Review
This week's one-paragraph review is from Zero who has this to say about On Fire's Wings by Christie Golden, "Book one of a three part series about a world that has been destroyed five times. Dancers with magical powers have one last chance to save the world before it goes black forever. An interesting story with both romance and war." Have you got a one-paragraph (or smaller) review you'd like to share? Send it in to me and I'll run the most interesting ones. You can reach me at feedback@qualitytimeweekly.com.