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NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (DIR: JOEL & ETHAN COEN) (SCR: BY THE COENS, BASED ON THE NOVEL OF THE SAME NAME BY CORMAN MC CARTHY)
The Academy's pick for best picture of 2007 was quite an unusual choice; NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN was a violent thriller with eccentric touches, hardly the kind of uplifting material that tends to win Oscars. What's more, it directors were cult figures known for their often oddball films; after debuting in 1984 with the highly entertaining Hitchcockian BLOOD SIMPLE, Joel and Ethan Coen had fashioned idiosyncratic careers that often involved updating and playing with classic film genres (like their 1990 gangster film pastiche MILLER'S CROSSING). Working in independent films that were generally highly regarded by critics, it was inevitable that the two brothers would break through into the mainstream enough to get the notice of the Academy, as they finally did in 1996, when their crime comedy FARGO was nominated for seven Oscars and won two. While I personally think that FARGO is a better film than NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, the latter film is certainly exciting and well crafted, along with it featuring one of the most memorable villains in movie history.
Before it was a movie, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN was a book published by author Cormac Mc Carthy in 2005. Shortly after its publication, producer Scott Rudin bought the rights to the book and suggested it as a project for the Coens. Although they had never adapted a novel before, the brothers admired the book (Joel later explained that he liked the fact that "Mc Carthy never followed through on formula expectations.") and agreed to write and direct it. Their script kept very close to the source novel, with only a few minor points and some dialogue removed. Gruff actor Tommy Lee Jones was cast perfectly as aging sheriff Ed Tom Bell, and Javier Bardem, who was at first afraid of playing a violent character, was brought on to play psychotic hit man Anton Chigurh. Finally, Josh Brolin, after lobbying hard for the role, was given the part of Lleweyln Moss. Shot on locations like Sante Fe and Albuquerque, the film was quickly completed on a budget of $25,000,000. After a slow opening(it's opening weekend saw it grossing only around $1,000,000), NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN would grown into a sizable hit, eventually making around $74,000,000.
Set in 1980, and located in West Texas, it tells the story of Llewelyn Moss(Brolin), a wielder who, while hunting deer, stumbles onto the aftermath of a drug deal gone terribly wrong. He eventually steals a briefcase full of money. This eventually leads to him being chased down by hit man Anton Chigurh (Bardem). Meanwhile, local sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Jones) attempts to chase down both men. Chigurh and Moss play cat and mouse for a while, until Llewelyn is killed by a Mexican gang.
Despite the modern setting, this film is in many ways a western, with its sweeping shots of the plains and valleys of Texas and its horse riding law men. (The Coens freely admitted to being influenced by famed western director Sam Peckinpah, and this film's theme of the aging lawman who longs for retirement is reminiscent of Peckinpah's RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY). And like many westerns, it's story deals with serious, dark, brooding and desperate men who live outside the law, being pursued by a equally serious sheriff. The film has long, heavy scenes without dialogue and the world of the film is one where sudden, brutal violence can break out at any moment (Anton shoots people without a moment's hesitation).
For the first hour and half, the plot follows a standard (if well done) action format, with Llewelyn staying just one step ahead of the relentless Anton; there's an electrifying shoot out between the two of them have that leaves both of them bloodied and that features Llewelyn piloting a truck that Anton is quickly blowing apart piece by piece. But then the film takes an odd left turn: after building up to the standard violent face off between the hunter and the hunted, the story is resolved when Llewelyn is killed by a Mexican gang. Killing your film's main character off in such a surprising way (he doesn't even die on screen!) is a daring move for the film (and the source novel) to take, and while I'm generally in favor of stories that challenge their audience by throwing out the standard formula, I find the last half hour of the film a bit lifeless without the usual kind of resolution. Killing off the Brolin character in such a cavalier manner after building our sympathy for him hurts the film, and I think it would have been more effective to at least show Brolin being killed by the gang instead of just the aftermath. Equally surprising is that the sheriff also fails to catch up to Anton, whose character has a much more unexpected resolution: after Llewelyn's death, Anton hunts down his wife Carla (Kelly MacDonald) and threatens to kill her, and then, in another unresolved moment, we see him leave her house without knowing whether or not has killed her. Then he gets in a car accident and flees the scene, bloody but unbowed. It's an unlikely way for a brutal killer to exit a film, wounded but free. I suppose one can interpret this as showing his character as some kind of unkillable force of nature, one that can only be slowed down but never stopped, like death itself, but I personally would have preferred a more conventional finish for such a horrible person. I should mention that I enjoyed the film more on repeat viewings when I knew about the unconventional ending and could just relax and enjoy the performances without worrying about the story. I also realize that confounding audience expectations is the whole point of the last part of the film, and that it was that aspect of the novel that appealed to the Coens in the first place, since monkeying with standard genre conventions is often their forte', still I prefer the way that they played with those same kind of conventions in the film FARGO while still giving the audience a satisfying ending. It's OK to tinker with formulas, but too much tinkering can leave an audience confused and unfulfilled.
Brolin and Jones both play their roles so naturally that they feel written for them; Brolin has an immediate likability and easily handles the many moments in which he has no dialogue. Jones, meanwhile, uses his standard grumpy charm well, especially in the last few scenes of the film when he has to deliver some pretty long patches of dialogue. But the most memorable character in the film is, of course, Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh; I've already mentioned that his character seems like a force of nature, and that certainly seems to be the way Bardem chose to play with him. With his dispassionate gaze, ugly hair cut and flat tone of voice, Anton often seems completely detached from the world around him (I love the way that he singlemindedly lurches through a pharmacy to steal medicine after blowing up a truck outside to distract the clerks). But there are other moments when he seems to be enjoying himself; in the film's most memorable scene, he interrogates a store owner and then flips a coin and tells the man to call it, implying that his life hangs in the balance. ("What's the most you ever lost on a coin toss?"). Clearly this cruel man, whom we've already seen strangle a cop with hand cuffs, enjoys playing god with another man's life for no reason. Bardem won a best supporting actor award for his work here, and it's easy to see why; he's one of the most chilling movie villains ever, right up with there with Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates.
SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
While I still have some reservations about this film's later moments, I still think it's a strong and well made thriller. But I don't think it was the best film of that year, not when PT Anderson's wonderful THERE WILL BE BLOOD was released, along with two terrific animated films, Brad Bird's RATATOUILLE and Marjene Satrapi's PERSEPOLIS. Still, as a long time fan of the Coens, I can't argue with them getting some Oscar love...