November 9, 2007

No Country For Old Men

nocountryforoldmen A quality "meditation on unknowable evil" movie, well-crafted by Joel and Ethan Coen. Llewelyn Moss, a down-on-his-luck unemployed welder (Josh Brolin) happens upon the remains of a drug buy gone wrong in the broad parched landscape of Texas. He finds a case full of money. He might have made it away scot-free, but he makes a series of rookie mistakes, and is soon tracked down by a sociopathic bounty hunter named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Meanwhile, the local Sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) is closing in on Llewelyn and Anton, while despairing the decline of civilization in America, and feeling his own mortality. If this sounds like the kind of movie I normally avoid, you're right: its trailer was awesome, and I have a pretty high satisfaction ratio on Coen brothers projects. If it had been marketed like the Brad Pitt / Casey Affleck Western The Assassination Of Jesse James (A contemplative meditation set amongst the lyrical beauty of the American West) then I would not have even rented it. However, No Country has a well-crafted cat-and-mouse chase at its center, with the scrappy and resourceful Llewelyn barely staying ahead of his dark destiny, embodied by the clever, soulless killing machine embodied by Anton. The chase would have been more fun to watch if a> Anton had not been portrayed as indefatigable and humorless, and b> there were an "action" musical score to add some emotional relief.

Without a musical score, and including a murderous sociopath who is so potent he nearly kills by force of will alone, the viewer is granted no relief from the tension of potential sudden death. We are never given any clue that a character is safe for even a moment, placing us in the same paranoid fever as Llewelyn. Anton passes through any door with his air gun, which pops any lock with the press of a button. Anton kills through any wall or door with his shotgun + silencer, which kills instantly and silently. No door and no wall is secure against him.

Anton plays his bounty hunter as a unstoppable, unfeeling Grim Reaper: he takes some lives and passes by others. He can't be bargained with, can't be reasoned with, and he will not stop, until Sarah Connor is dead. Oh wait, wrong movie: Anton reminded me a lot of the Terminator.

There's a scene in the middle of the movie lifted straight from The Terminator (1984): Anton is pursuing Llewelyn when Llewelyn shoots him with a shotgun. Anton barely escapes. Anton retreats to his motel room and patches himself up, silently cleaning his wound, picking out buckshot, injecting himself with needles, all without any apparent feeling. In another symbolic scene, Anton suffers a much more severe injury, one which a>demands professional medical attention, and b>means almost certain capture by the police. Yet Anton picks himself up and keeps going, staggering down the sidewalk, completely unaffected, simply existing in one direction only.

I found one of the common Coen brothers tropes frustrating and unnecessary: Anton travels by murdering ordinary people for their cars. The Coen brothers seem to take some kind of perverse comedic pleasure in placing ordinary corn-fed Americans in the path of certain death, then watching them squirm on the hook a bit before executing them. They've treated us to these vignettes in Fargo and Raising Arizona, among others, and it happens a few too many times in this movie as well. We're shown his murderous vehicle-acquisition technique a few times, but the final time, when he murders a chicken farmer for his truck, it's played for laughs which seem completely tasteless to me.

As I said above, I generally avoid contemplative meditations on life and death, but I am glad I saw this one. Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin are excellent. Tommy Lee Jones is as perfect as usual, although he played a very similar role in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. The "thriller" sequences are taut and well-crafted, without the cinematic tricks the Coens used to rely on. (Kendall Square Cinema)