No Country for Old Men (DVD, 2008) Reviews
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No Country for Old Men (DVD, 2008)

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The Coen Brothers Compose America's Potential Epitaph: NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.

Nov 20, 2007 (Updated Nov 26, 2007)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Cormac McCarthy's novel. The Coens' adaptation, directing. Bardem, Brolin, Jones. Roger Deakins' photography. Sound mixing.

Cons:Either not enough Woody Harrelson, or too much. Last fifteen minutes may frustrate some viewers.

The Bottom Line: The Coen Brothers get it all together; quite possibly their finest film. You will not be able to take your eyes off the screen for much of its length.


"As devised and refined by James M. Cain, Jim Thompson and their gloomy paperback peers, the crime novel aimed its cheap handgun at the heart of America's most prized beliefs about its destiny: that the loot we've scooped up will belong to us forever and that history allows clean getaways." -- Walter Kirn, reviewing Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel, No Country for Old Men, The New York Times Book Review.

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A western noir, in bare sunlight and by motel bulbs at night, a film of biblical doom in its implications, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN guarantees that there are no "clean getaways" for anyone, not for any of the characters, not for any of us in America.

The Coen Brothers' adaptation and execution of McCarthy's story creates at least 9/10th of a great 122 minute movie, possibly the best of their career. Suppressed but not entirely absent is their wicked sense of humor, but within the action, and especially near the end, we find Roman Catholic author McCarthy's customary apocryphal Calvinist philosophy of predestination expressed through the words of a temporary survivor; and his eulogy for the Americans we like to imagine we once were; that we're crazy enough, at times, to think we still are.

The rest of the film is just pure action, most of all when it is deathly still, and almost unadulterated Hell when it's really moving, which will keep you on your toes as you sit in the theater, and glancing nervously, if you can take your eyes from the screen, at any stranger who you imagine might want to follow you outside at the end. Months from now, after the film has won its Oscars, when you watch it at home on DVD, you may be tempted to keep the lights on.

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Unlike most of McCarthy's early major works, historical novels, this story takes place after the Vietnam War. The year is 1980. [We know that by a flip of a quarter, a symbol for the randomness of life or death, which will appear several times more during the film's wild, deadly race across Texas.] As if on a fatal bridge across the Rio Grande, the film rolls out, without making its metaphorical underpinnings an overt point. The Vietnam War has been over five years, but 52 Americans are being held hostage in Iran, just as the average American fully realizes that "the Drug Culture" and so-called Drug Revolution are not entirely contained in San Francisco, Chicago and New York, but may be reaching Idaho or even . . . TEXAS!? Inflation is at 23%, and Ronald Reagan, thanks to an October Surprise, will soon be elected the President who begins our long slide, with money borrowed from the Chinese. Texans are beginning to switch from Democrat to Republican, Big Time, for the promise of controlling Middle Eastern Oil; and the odds are turning against the ordinary, what we now call (thanks to Karl Rove) Red State Americans. Those odds, as we Western gamblers know, always favor the banker, but after seeing NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, you might wonder who the final winning banker is; you might be afraid to ask because, by this time, you really should know.

In the beginning, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones, the ageing Law West of the Pecos) remarks on changes in the land and in his people (as he will occasionally off camera and on throughout this film), while the Coens' cameras sweep the bleakly beautiful high desert country of South Texas around Marfa. The town was named after Jules Verne's Michael [Marfa] Strogoff, and it's where George Stevens made GIANT in 1956. But in the years since, periodic long droughts have robbed the landscape of much of the romantic grandeur it had back then. You might well be on the deadly veldts of Africa, or on the plains before Jericho.

We pick up the apparent hero of our story, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a Vietnam veteran, a descent, hard-scrabble welder by recent trade, a good ole boy, who is sighting the scope of his impressive looking .270 rifle "on a '98 Mauser action" [lots of detail on weapons and tools here, drawn from Author McCarthy] at one of a herd of antelope.

He fires . . . and misses. Or does he?

[It could be an omen.]

Catching up to the spot, Moss finds a blood spoor, and follows it, not to the deer but to a wounded black pit bull who, in turn, leads him to the opposing burnt out lines of a great and recent truck/SUV battle in the desert. All around the wrecks lie the bodies of men and dogs, flies already upon them. On the flatbed of an intact truck, Moss spies stacks of Mexican brown heroin bricks, and hearing a moan from the cab, he finds a man too weak to lift his shotgun begging for "agua," and a large black leather case, containing (as he will discover) over two million dollars in hundred dollar bills. He ignores the man's cries for water and lights out with the money, back to his own vehicle.

Returning to the trailer where he lives with his lonesome, naive young wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), he tells her to get her stuff packed; he intends to send her back to her mother in Odessa for safety. He is too canny to think that his theft from the thieves will not have consequences.

The scene shifts to the arrest of the curious figure of Anton Chigurh (Ant-on-Sugar . . . get it?) by a careless young deputy, who casually leaves his charge with an equally careless younger deputy (Zach Hopkins), who pays his life with his own handcuffs for that, in the first of a seemingly never ending series of brutal murders carried out in excruciating detail. This first death probably takes the most time, for we discover that Chigurh registers something between a religious experience and orgasm from these acts.

The dark Chiguhr (Xavier Bradem), dressed rather like a priest, hair cut not unlike that of Paul Muni in JUAREZ (Dieterle, 1939), will be revealed a psychopathic murderer, the Angel of Death, a hyped-up Horseman of the Apocalypse, a peculiar vision of the Mexican -- the foreigner who would become a mirror image of all the Osama bin Ladens to xenophobic Americans at the Turn of the 21st Century. He has been interrupted in the mission entrusted to him -- recovering money promised to his principals in Mexico from the murderously bad dope deal which Moss discovered in the desert. In the deputy's cruiser, this real life Terminator continues toward the site, potting off the odd bird or hapless motorist (the latter with a pneumatic stockyard gun used to fell cattle), while sparing other lives at the flip of one of those suddenly lucky or unlucky coins.

Meanwhile, Moss awakes in the middle of the night, overcome by his better-natured conscience. As in "no good deed goes unpunished," he forces his 4-wheel drive back to the killing field, only to find the man he left now dead, and a small drug army on the spot. He escapes, injured, but has to leave his truck, swim a river, shoot a dog, and after seeing Carla Jean away, goes on the run, in the opposite direction.

Later, that morning Chiguhr arrives on the crime scene, takes down the registration from Moss's truck, finds drops of his quarry's blood, and the chase is on.

Following Moss and Chiguhr are Sheriff Tom Bell and his careless deputy, Wendell (Garrett Dillahunt), who upon viewing the drug battlefield, and finding Moss's truck, remarks: "You think this boy Moss got any notion of the sorts that're huntin' him?"

To which the veteran Sheriff Bell, now near retirement, replies: "I don't know, he ought to. He's seen the same things I've seen, and it's certainly made an impression on me."

Sheriff Bell laments the fact that people don't say "sir" and "ma'm" anymore, and that kids are beginning to dye their hair green and wear bones in their noses. He simply doesn't know what the World's coming to.

Maybe, it's as if Americans were returning to the tribalism from which we all came, at one time.

In their half-hearted, wary policemen's way, they set out to save Moss, if it is reasonably possible.

-----

There's more. Much, MUCH . . . MORE!!

For instance, a Houston business man, in an immaculate office, without a book or paper in sight, hires an ex-lieutenant colonel of Vietnam Special Forces, a mercenary of the kind so much in demand these days. Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) dresses in cool Western-style suits and a white ten gallon hat, just like Buck Jones or Tom Mix used to. The businessman wants Wells to overtake Moss, or the irritating Anton Chiguhr (chigger, get it?), he doesn't care which, but at least bring back the money: "How dangerous is he?" asks the businessman, referring to Chiguhr.

"Compared to what?" says Harrelson/Wells, in his best eye-rolling style. "The bubonic plague?"

The chase of the chasers is redoubled.

That's enough.

Shortly, Sheriff Bell, who had put but one man on death row during his career, never shot anyone, seldom carried a gun, observes: "This county has not had an unsolved homicide in 31 years. Now we got nine of 'em in a week."

-----

As the action shifts to the border town of Eagle Pass, Texas, to Piedras Negras, Mexico, to Houston, to El Paso, to Odessa, Carter Burwell's superbly simple score, augmented by the odd popular song or Mariachi/Folklorico, seldom registers over the Coens' usual Cinematographer Roger Deakins' perfectly registered photography. Their long time Editor Roderick Jaynes' seamless hell-for-pickup-truck editing, and most of all the incredible sound mixing of Peter Kurland, fills out Josh Gonchor's production design, keeping this film's dark vision on the road, day or night. You will see some of these men nominated for Oscars, I am sure.

And one or more of the principle actors, Jones, Brolin, Bardem, possibly Harrelson, will be up for Academy Awards, too. Embodying their emblematic characters -- Bell, Moss, Chiguhr, Wells -- they, each in his own way, illustrate what the military now terms "John Wayne Syndrome," "a cycle of loneliness," which will not allow them to let go of what they have done, or must do, or might have done, ought to have done.

The women -- Scots actress Kelly Macdonald's sweet Carla Jean; Beth Grant as Agnes, Carla Jean's mother who has "the cancer"; Tess Harper's Loretta Bell (who likes to cheerfully read the Book of Revelation while her husband Tom discourses); and certainly Ana Reeder as "the loose woman" by that El Paso swimming pool with her fatal bottle of beer -- have less screen time to register, but they are the prizes which, in the end, are worth much more than two million drug dollars.

And no mention will be made of the odd perfect cameo or bit which dots the film like crazy raisins in a fruit cake.

In fact, as NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN tumbles toward its conclusion like a train coming off the track, all that seemed to possess infinite importance and time earlier is telescoped, fragmented. A coin and some screws beside a grate tells us who has the money; a dead body on a motel room floor writes finish to a major character; a figure coming out of a house, pausing to scrape something off his boot, reveals the fate of a loved one; a careless glance, a surprising human concern, harbinging a cosmic everyday coincidence at a traffic light, almost stops a force of nature -- all these fragments give way to the conversations of two elderly pairs of Americans in clapboard houses on the seemingly endless desert of Texas.

Some viewers may feel cheated. What the hell did happen? Is it over yet? Why did certain characters ask others for the shirts off their backs? pay them hundreds of dollars for them?

"You have to be willing to die to do this job," saith Sheriff Bell, a WWII Vet with his own particular "John Wayne Syndrome," which may be why he works on his version of a Roman aqueduct, and thinks this is NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.

Just a great movie. That's what I think.






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