Sunday, November 18, 2007

Mortal Coils

Whatever one thinks of the Coen Brothers -- and I've been on-again, off-again throughout their joint careers -- in any one of their movies you can count on at least a couple of memorable scenes involving interactions with the local townsfolk. Several of these scenes occur, one right after the other, in No Country for Old Men: some are amusing, as when Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), an unemployed Vietnam veteran who makes off with a case filled with two million dollars from a botched drug deal, encounters a droll boot salesman along the Texas-Mexico border; others chill to the bone, like Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the murderous bounty hunter hot on Moss's trail, deciding the fate of a harmless gas station owner on the literal turn of a coin. The Coens are frequently accused of condescension in their depiction of middle America (usually by East Coast critics who have never lived there, as Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out in an interesting discussion of his excellent review) but I don't see the charges sticking this time. In No Country for Old Men, the people and their relationship with the landscape they inhabit are evoked more seriously, more pensively, than the contraptionist Coens have attempted before.

Although containing familiar elements from their body of work--the comic interplay of Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) and his dimwitted deputy (Deadwood's Garret Dillahunt) is particularly reminiscent of similar exchanges in Fargo--No Country for Old Men comes closest to reminding me of A Simple Plan, the 1998 Sam Raimi thriller starring Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton as a pair of brothers who also stumble on a pile of cash. Both films depict the tragic consequences of decent people who go for the easy score and find themselves in over their heads with forces they are ill-prepared to contend with. A Simple Plan employed a wintry backdrop as a mise-en-scene that was used figuratively as cover for the lifelong resentments that can fester within families; No Country for Old Men uses its desert habitat to underscore the harsh, pitiless pursuit of Moss and the two-mil by Chigurh. (As photographed by Roger Deakins, night has never looked more beautifully ominous.)

As Moss, Josh Brolin, finally establishing himself as an actor, pulls off the difficult feat of appearing hardboiled and easygoing at once. As Chigurh (pronounced like "shih-gore," not, as I guessed, "chigger"), Javier Bardem is as terrifying as you've heard. Methodical and relentless, brandishing an unusual weapon of choice -- a pressurized gun with oxygen tank -- Chigurh joins Hannibal Lecter and DeNiro's Max Cady from Cape Fear on the pantheon of memorable modern villains. Though less flamboyant than the former and less tedious than the latter, he remains generally unrecognizable as a human being; but the individuals he encounters and usually destroys are all too human and real.

In outline, the movie is essentially an extended chase involving not only the two principals, but also a group of Mexicans, a second, more refined bounty hunter (Woody Harrelson, making the most of his three or four scenes) hired when Chigurh's sanity is called into question by his handler (a terrific Stephen Root, reminding us that he can play more than nebbishy parts), and finally Sheriff Bell himself, whose leisurely approach to the investigation is a mark of his fear. (It's a shock to see the normally cocksure Jones in a role that calls for him to be frail and tentative.) Along the way are a couple of scenes -- one involving a chase down river involving a pit bull, the other a shootout that starts in a motel room and spills into the street -- that rank with the most thrilling sequences in movie history. Yet true to their nature, the Coens confound expectations in the final act, refusing to tie up loose ends and killing off key characters offscreen, instead aiming for....something else, I guess. (Special thanks to the loud old lady who masterfully interpreted the ending to a grateful group of us standing in the aisle after it was over.)

Originally I had intended to write that the climax of No Country for Old Men is another example of the Coen Brothers denying audiences the closure they deserve, until I realized that a typical ending would have been an even greater letdown. There are other flaws: the Mexicans are, of course, never distinguished as individuals like the other characters; and I never understood how Chigurh is initially captured by a young cop clearly out of his depth. But this is still a great movie, a return to form following a run of crap work, an elegantly-devised contraption filled with real feeling. As is ironically often the case when auteur filmmakers finally get out of their own heads and start living in the worlds of others (in this case, adapting Cormac McCarthy's novel), their achievement here is a movie that feels entirely their own, rather than a facsimile laminated on classic films past.

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