It is somewhat expected that we should fawn over a movie made by the Coen Brothers. Their borderline surrealism, crackling dialogue and wild, dark-sided character explorations are trademarked motifs that have cult status burning through their cinematic veins. That they manage to create fabulously rich and decidedly literate films as well, nuanced and textured with highly memorable set-pieces, almost iconic characters whose very left-field natures guarantee them pop-culture immortality (which, if you think about it, is exactly the style that the Coens have concocted for themselves and their oeuvre right from the start) are the elements that keep them fresh, unorthodox and eternally entertaining. No-one could argue that their last couple of movies did not exactly conform to their own admittedly diverse parameters. The Ladykillers remake was lacklustre enough to be considered a misstep and their subverted romantic comedy Intolerable Cruelty lacked their own brand of verbal sparkle and mis-en-scene. But now, with an almost word-for-word adaptation of “American Dickens” Cormac McCarthy's modern-day Western fable (or, rather, anti-fable, if you like) No Country For Old Men, there has been a recognised return to form for the duo. Like Miller's Crossing before it (still their best movie, by far), No Country takes pleasure in bending the rule-book and sliding through the murky grey areas of the human soul to the degree where its roster of mean-spirited ne'er-do-wells seem to hark back to Sergio Leone's archetypal Spaghetti population - amoral, driven-yet-uncontrollable outsiders who drift through their precarious existence like forces of nature towards a doom-sodden horizon that they are too hard-headed to veer away from. Destiny. Fatality. Call it what you will, the Coens have an innate sense of intimate “closure” that is nigh on epic.
Taking McCarthy's novel at face value and transplanting it accurately onto the big screen, the idiosyncratic filmmaking duo once again allow their actors to steal the show with understated, yet somehow colossally brazen performances that scorch themselves indelibly into the modern celluloid psyche. Their twisted characters add layers of enigma, violence and heroism to what is, in actual fact, a terribly simple plot revolving around a cross-country pursuit. Though, naturally, given that the Coens are steering this wagon across demented territory they know so well, this will become an odyssey of retribution and redemption. Josh Brolin's hunter Llewellyn Moss happens across the bloody scene of massacre in the middle of the West Texan plains - bodies lie everywhere, trucks are peppered with bullet-holes, there's a huge stash of drugs in the back of a pick-up and $2 million in a case by the body of a man who thought he'd gotten away. Moss takes the money and the weapons and is soon on the run from the deadliest hit-man this side of Hell - the lumbering lunatic Anton Chigurh, played by Javier (Goya's Ghosts) Bardem, who has already garrotted a police deputy with a pair of handcuffs. On this already desperate trail is weary old third-generation lawman, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a fabulously throaty Tommy Lee Jones in the type of role he was simply born to play. Sundry complications will ensue that will bring all three into conflict, not the least of which will be another bounty hunter called Carter Wells (an on-form Woody Harrelson) who has been commissioned to take care of Chigurh's loose canon.
“Buenos Dias. I'm guessing this isn't the future you had planned for yourself when you first clapped eyes on that money. Don't worry, I'm not the man who's after you.”
“I know that. I've seen him.”
“You've seen him, and you're not dead?”
Moss may not be exactly the typical everyman who gets caught up in a whirlwind of hit-men, mob-money and gun-battles, there is too much dogged cynicism to warm to him for that. Although Chigurh will exact a blood-curdling revenge upon him should he get his hands on him - the threat even transferring to his wife, Carla-Jean ( Kelly Macdonald, who looks a little too much of an English rose - despite actually being Scottish - to convince as a Texan trailer-trash bride) and her aged mother - we never really want him to get off the hook. He's brought this all on himself, when all said and done. But, even with this in mind, Brolin reveals a true gruff likeability, his half-detached persona a quirky combination of Nick Nolte and, naturally, his own father James. But where James Brolin was ostensibly a smiling hero, Josh hides his humour behind an impressive brow, steely eyes of black and a moustache that even Pancho Villa would be proud of. A man of few taciturn words, he even comes to evoke Mel Gibson's Road Warrior - particularly so when he stumbles across the initial scene of the massacre and has only enough conscience and compassion to calmly ask a bullet-riddled Mexican, agonised with thirst, where the last man standing is, reminiscent of Mad Max's saving of a grievously wounded crossbow-bolt victim only to procure himself some gasoline. It is pertinent to note that it is this precise act that precipitates the situation he finds himself in - a middle of the night change of heart about the dying man's plight puts the real bad guys on his trail.
“That's very linear, Sheriff.”
“Well, age will flatten a man.”
Jones exemplifies the world-weary frontier lawman. He's the type of guy who has seen it all ... but over a very long time period filled with lots of empty prairie patrolling. Jaded, worn-down but still with a quick enough mind to cut through the bureaucratic BS, he meanders after his quarry, always several steps behind them. His erstwhile young Deputy makes a wonderful on-the-spot analysis of the initial massacre-site though - “Execution over here ... Wild West over there,” as they peruse the bloated carcasses congealing in the dirt. But Jones, somewhat recalling his turn in The Three Burials Of Mequiades Estrada and even his placatory Fed from The Fugitive, delivers the eerie end-of-an-era, beat-up persona of a dozen other old-time lawmen. His is not a show-boating performance, indeed he is onscreen for less than half the time of his battling cohorts, but he lends the film that distinctive Texan leisureliness that buzzes around the plot like a fly bashing constantly into the wan glow from a motel's neon light.
”Just how dangerous is he?”
“Compared to what? The bubonic plague?”
But the real trophy in No Country's already impressive cabinet of talent is Javier Bardem's irresistible assassin, Anton Chigurh. The Coen's have provided some terrifying nemesis for their pictures over the years - Miller's Crossing's Eddie The Dane, Barton Fink's Charlie Meadows and M. Emmett Walsh's determined gumshoe from Blood Simple - but they appear to have reached their villainous zenith with this existential and almost demonic presence. Cutting through the harsh and unyielding landscape like a T-800 comically topped with a patently ridiculous Monkeys haircut (Bardem swears that the wig the Coens made him wear has affected him psychologically), Anton Chigurh is a powerful anvil of weird-voiced evil. With his soulful eyes, lurking height, impassive leathery visage and total lack of outward physical nastiness - basically he doesn't look remotely scary making his rampage even more frightening - Anton's relentless warpath is deliciously invigorating, his multiple slayings' apparent casualness a deceptive glimpse into his own troubled heart. His sheer mystery is the blinding light that leads the way into the darkness of this morality play, giving nothing away yet revealing altogether too much about the nature of the beast. His black heart is at the centre of this bleak universe, yet whenever Bardem is onscreen he ignites it, leaving you hanging on his every bizarrely inflected word. With his crazily warped code of ethics and his ritualistic approach to room-searches and, in a particularly wince-inducing scene that again recalls the T-800 from The Terminator, self-surgery, he is both intimidating and fascinating at the same time. It is also cool the way in which people keep reminding Moss, and later on his wife, too, that no matter what he does or how competent and determined he is, he is no match for the near-indestructible Chigurh.
“I counted the floors in this building from the ground up ... and I noticed that you've got one missing.”
“Oh ... we'll, um, look into it.”
The Coens have a knack for making violence both extreme and strangely comical. A mobster's dance of death as Albert Finney fills him full of Tommy-gun lead in Miller's Crossing; Walsh's wretched attempts to drag out the knife impaling his hand to a window-sill in Blood Simple; Steve Buscemi's body dumped into a tree-chopping machine in Fargo etc, are all grisly yet perversely fascinating - it's carnage vaudeville-style. In Old Country, Chigurh's preference for using compressed air bolts, of the kind employed to kill cattle, is no less unique a method of despatching those in his way. Even the more mundane shotgun-blasts and bullets to the head have a sort of cathartic brutality that makes them no less violent but mysteriously less offensive than if, say, Scorsese, De Palma, Tarantino or Cimino had handled them. A protracted strangulation is pretty horrible but, even here, the Coen's exhibit a deft hand with its framing - wildly flailing legs leaving enough scratch marks on the floor to pass for a stampede of ravenous dogs. Where the inescapable darkness creeps in is with the threat of violence. Chigurh acts like a satanic decider of fates, giving the odd victim a Seventh Seal-style gambit at survival. One early scene set in a lonely gas station has the floppy-haired killer grilling the poor proprietor about his life before giving the choice of how it will end with the simple, yet majestic flip of a coin. Again, Sergio Leone is recalled with his old trick of the pocket-watch chimes in For A Few Dollars More or the harmonica in Once Upon A Time In The West. Actually, this coin-toss is also reminiscent of Batman's sadistic chancer-nemesis Two-face who, in another quirk of fate, was once portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever. But the tension that is created in such scenes is stuffy, tight and claustrophobic. Gene Jones, who plays the gas station guy, is wonderfully perplexed as to the choice that is being offered him, simply staring incredulously at this soft-spoken stranger who has come from nowhere and has an equally far-away look in his puppy-dog eyes. It is an eloquently chilling scene that is destined to go down in the Coen pantheon of classic set-pieces.
“I got a bad feeling, Llewellyn.”
“Well I got a good feeling, so that should even out.”
The action scenes, although sporadic, are also very effective. Suspense is wrung out of a couple of ubiquitous motel and hotel room sequences and the film offers up some nifty running battles through the neon-lit Texan streets. A great standout involves Moss sitting on a bed, sawn-off shotgun at the ready, awaiting an imminent attack whilst his almost elemental hunter opts for room entry in his own unorthodox manner. Since Miller's Crossing, the Coens haven't really engaged in too much action, but there is plenty of running about in No Country and, once again, the brothers manage to blend realism with sur-realism to concoct a saga that seems to exist within its own parallel universe to the 1980 Tex-Mex border country in which the film is set. Kudos must go to the great wake-up call that a wounded Moss gets when a roving Mariachi band serenade his dishevelled form lying on the street. And check out the moment when Chigurh meets a fat trailer-park proprietor who will not divulge information about her tenants - you just know that he is inching closer to another murder the longer she defies him.
Brilliantly acted and directed and containing a marvellously consistent mood of drained but dogged survival, No Country For Old Men still delivers sweaty-palmed excitement, crisp one-two lines of biting irony and enough left-field plot devices to keep any Coen-fan more than happy. Destined for culthood and, potentially, one of the films of the year. Yeah ... already.
“It's a mess, ain't it?”
“Well, if it isn't, it'll do 'til the real one gets here.”
Classy, brutal, beautifully constructed and never does quite what you expect it to. Exactly how a Coen Brothers film should be. Very highly recommended indeed.
PictureFilmed with an expansive 2.35:1 aspect, the Cohen's latest stretches across the screen with a sublime palette of muted colours and wide, wide shots that favour the rolling plains and the clouds scuttling across the sky. Cinematographer Roger Deakins seems to make even the close-ups look spacious. The interiors are immaculately framed, moody and evocative despite the camera angles never being stylistically skewed, but rather gloriously straight-forward which, in itself, is quite refreshing in this age of quick-cut, shakey-cam chicanery.
Although undoubtedly a detailed image, I didn't really notice anything that I would be hugely looking forward to scrutinising in 1080p as a means of testing the quality of the transfer - except maybe for the scene when Moss spies a man sitting against a distant tree through his binoculars and then has to check back later to see if he has moved at all. There is plenty of shadow-play at work throughout the film though, and a couple of great shots that have Chigurh looming in the gloom - reflected in the TV screen and then sitting calmly back in the corner chair towards the end of the film offering another character the heart-stopping flip of a coin.
SoundIf you've been keeping up with my reviews recently, you will have noticed that I've chosen to cover a lot of original soundtrack CDs - well, it is safe to say that you won't be seeing a write-up for the score of No Country For Old Men ... because there simply isn't a full cue until you reach the end credits in which Coen regular composer Carter Burwell supplies a theme that blends Ennio Morricone with Jerry Fielding. Otherwise, his score delivers a soft melancholy tune now and again but the film is really provided an audio life courtesy of the whistling wind, the scuffling of cowboy boots, the occasional gun-blast and the tricksy, deceptive and eminently quotable dialogue that peppers it all. There is a nice explosion and one terrific moment when Chigurh's bullets ping very sharply through the windscreen of a pick-up that Moss has just, well, picked up, that crack with a beautiful ferocity out of the soundmix. The blasting out of locks that Chigurh does with his compressed-air gun is also sharply and loudly done.
Dialogue, despite being drawled into the wind or merely spoken quietly over motel clerks' counters for much of the film, is always intelligible and well worth listening to for later smart-ass repeating with your mates during beer-fuelled dissections of the movie. Although certainly no bombastic, bass-filled action movie, I would reckon that when No Country hits home video, it will deliver a deceptively lulling soundtrack punctuated by sudden awesome stabbings of frenetic, well-steered aggression.
VerdictWith the Coen Brothers hitting all the right notes in this wacked-out modern-day Western, creating a brand new bogeyman in the form of Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh and chronicling the dark tapestry of a frontier still populated by nature's forsaken, the future of cinematic adaptations of great contemporary literature looks healthy indeed. Deliberately slow and measured, No Country For Old Men stakes a grim claim for tense character dissemination in a world so desolate that even the landscape becomes a poignant reminder that soulless have a home. With several standout scenes - Bardem's gas station encounter-cum-game-of-chance being a scintillating display of understated menace and almost supernatural enigma - the film packs in an emotional wallop that, whilst not disturbing enough to trouble a fragile mind, will deliver images that will linger within it for a while.
However, this is still not the Coens firing on all cylinders - the film is altogether too quiet for that, the smarts for dazzling wordplay left rotting in the prairie dust - but No Country For Old Men marks a significant comeback for Hollywood's greatest nuance-providers. Brolin excels, Jones does what he does best a bit better than usual and Bardem strides confidently into Villainy's Hall Of Infamy. Expect an action figure of him, replete with compressed air stun-gun and naff hair, at some point in a Forbidden Planet store near you.
Thoroughly excellent. Go see it.
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