Sunday, January 27, 2008

Film Review: No Country For Old Men

Some people will not like No Country For Old Men. That's not the best way to start a review, let alone one which is going to be overwhelmingly positive, but there ya go. Some people will not like the violence, of which there is plenty; others will not like the tone, which is unrelentingly bleak; and others will not like the message that lies at the heart of the film, that the world is is going to Hell in a handbasket. Many people may not like the ending, lacking as it does a real resolution and flying in the face of pretty much any movie convention. Yet for all these things, it's clear to me that No Country For Old Men is a masterpiece.

The plot is simplicity itself; whilst out hunting one day, good ol' boy Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon the aftermath of a drugs deal gone awry. After poking around the bodies and the debris, he finds $2 million in cash and decides to take it. A crisis of conscience causes him to return to the scene later on and this starts a chain of events that attracts the attention of psychopathic killer Anton Chigurh (an astounding Javier Bardem), who then sets off after Moss. As this is going on, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is on the trail of both men and struggles with the carnage he witnesses all around him.

As a thriller, No Country For Old Men is exceptional. There are moments of tension and terror so well-realised on screen, including the much lauded 'coin toss' scene, that they were almost unbearable, in a good way. The Coens', reigning in their usual tendencies for surrealism and screwball antics, deliver a sparse film that has echoes of some of their darker work, most notably Blood Simple and Fargo, but which is a different beast entirely, one which is far more brutal than even their most celebrated pieces of cinematic violence. There's a real sense of restraint about it, as if the Coens' have set aside the archness that usual runs throughout their films, the sort of knowing aloofness that allowed them to, for example, feed Steve Buscemi into a woodchipper (which they really did; John Waters has been pretending to be him ever since so no one will realise the truth) because there had been a procession of wacky, grotesque characters spouting funny dialogue beforehand and which gave the audience the sense that the Coens' were letting them in on their own private fraternal joke. Though there are aspects of that on display in No Country For Old Men, they are in the background and only fleetingly rise to the surface; gone are the niceties, and we're left to face the fullest, rawest realisation yet of their cold, Kubrickian nihilism.

Yet for all its value as a thriller, No Country For Old Men is a much more complex film than it would first appear, one which genuinely has something to say about the world we live in and, for fear of sounding pretentious, the nature of humanity. Though the main action of the film occurs with Moss and Chigurh, it's Bell who provides a moral centre to the film and it's his reactions to what he sees that raises the crucial question of the film; is the world becoming a worse place, or have things always been this bad? Bell, in his inability to comprehend the actions of Chigurh, who begins to represent for him the personification of all things evil and unknowable about the modern world, is in many ways the architect of his own downfall; he becomes so afraid of what he sees that, ultimately, he cannot confront it. As Bell, Tommy Lee Jones is absolutely fantastic, delivering what may be a career best performance as a man who, seeing that he is much nearer the end of his life than the beginning, starts to question what he has done and whether or not he has lived up to the expectations and standards of his forefathers. It's a wonderfully subtle performance, with Jones' familiar, comfortingly craggy features only barely concealing the fear and confusion that dwells beneath them.

Though Tommy Lee Jones is fantastic, as is Josh Brolin in the other main role, the film lives or dies on the power and menace of one character; Anton Chigurh. With his calm, level tones, pudding bowl haircut and clinical, almost uninterested air, Chigurh could seem like a ridiculous figure, yet in the capable hands of Javier Bardem he becomes he's the stuff of nightmares. The way he snares people in meticulously constructed traps of wordplay, getting under the skin of characters through his almost carelessly probing, intimidating questioning and his general air of menace make him horrific even when he's not bursting open an artery with his handcuffs or driving bolts into peoples' heads using a cattle bolt pistol. I've been mulling over his performance for a couple of days now trying to figure out what it is about him that is so disquieting, so terrifying and just so inhuman. I think the secret lies in an exchange that occurs about three-quarters of the way through the film; after a confrontation with Chigurh, Llewellyn is able to drag himself to a hospital and wakes up to the sight of Carson Welles, played with subdued cool by Woody Harrelson, a bounty hunter who has known Chigurh in the past. When asked by Llewellyn if Chigurh is ''meant to be the ultimate badass'', Wells replies languidly, ''he doesn't have a sense of humour''. This might seem like a throwaway line, but I think it cuts right to the heart of what makes Chigurh so damn unsettling: he doesn't seem to be enjoying himself. There's none of the sadism in his performance that usually characterises a movie psychopath, just a cold, unfeeling desire to kill. Hell, it's not even a desire, it's just something he does. The ease with which Chigurh can murder innocent bystanders, with no concern over who he kills or whether or not his actions might be witnessed is chilling stuff, and I for one will be hugely surprised if Javier Bardem doesn't waltz off with Best Supporting Oscar next month . Though I wouldn't be disappointed if Casey Affleck was the one to beat him to it.

Though you couldn't say that No Country For Old Men lacks a sense of humour; even amongst the death and the violence, the film manages absolutely hilarious at times. However, the humour is dark, very dark. There are little moments where characters engage in funny exchanges, one between Moss and a camping goods store clerk is particular good, but for the most part it's real gallows humour. For example, I burst out laughing in the cinema when a completely innocent bystander was shot in the head. Just something about the timing of it and the shock value made that my gut reaction to something that, in any other film, would be utterly horrific. That's the thing with No Country For Old Men, it achieves such a delicate balancing act that you're never entirely sure if you should scream, laugh or wince. Sometimes you've no choice but to do all three at once.

Whilst watching the film, I couldn't help but think that if Cormac McCarthy hadn't already created this story, the Coen Brothers would have had to do it themselves; so rare is it to see material so suited to those adapting it, it's hard to imagine that the lines being said did not spring from the minds of Joel and Ethan. The screenplay is immensely faithful to the book, moreso than would usually be healthy or advisable for a film. As well as the more obvious things like the characters and the plot, the surprisingly Coen-esque dialogue is taken almost word for word from McCarthy's novel. That's not to say they've just stuck the book in a copier and cut it up into a screenplay, though, since the Coens' have made a few minor but hugely beneficial changes, most notably the very wise decision to prune a subplot from the book that, whilst featuring some great exchanges between Moss and a teenage hitchhiker, would have really dragged down the final third.

Whilst this approach means that much of the stuff that is great about the film originated on the page, a lot of the stuff that people won't like comes from there as well. It's clear that the Coens' weren't willing to make things more palatable, or even satisfying, for an audience and, for some people, this results in No Country For Old Men being too unconventional for its own good, which is also what's so damn brilliant about it. It's really jarring, and more than a little thrilling, to see a film which genuinely has the balls to say ''fuck you'' not only to members of its own audience but to entire, long-established conventions of Western cinema. That it does so in a style which is actually quite conventional and with a story that is incredibly accessible makes their willful subversion all the more exhilarating.

On top of all these great points, the film just looks amazing. Roger Deakins, who also shot the mesmerising The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (have I mentioned how much I love that film enough yet? No? Well, I do), captures the vast, harsh landscapes of Texas (actually Nevada most of the time but never mind) superbly, not only conveying the sheer scale of the backdrops that frame the action, but really drawing out the sense of melancholy such images can evoke. I think that much of the tone of the film, particularly the bleaker aspects of it, is established by the cinematography and it's hard to argue with the idea that the world is becoming a worse place when characters do such terrible things to each other in such an inhospitable environment.

However, what I found most interesting was that the film spent as much time on the small details as it did on the big picture. For example, the film goes to great lengths to show things like Moss buying different pieces of equipment so he can hide the stolen money, as well as a lengthy scene detailing how Chigurh copes with the aftermath of being shot. Incidentally, the latter scene features a wonderful deadpan shot of Javier Bardem sitting naked on a toilet sewing up a great big hole in his leg, something which everyone in the cinema I was in found hilarious. It's these little details, the sort of things you wouldn't usually see in a thriller, that allow the Coens' to keep the audience on edge and off balance without actually having to do too much; focusing on the little things keeps us guessing when the next big thing is going to happen.

However, as I said from the beginning, for all its positives, No Country For Old Men is not a film which I could recommend to everyone because, quite frankly, a lot of people will go in and hate it; it's a dark, nihilistic tale with a tone and narrative that is almost unerringly bleak and it poses questions that get to heart of the modern age but which says that there are no easy answers to them. It's around this point that I should say that it's a return to form for the Coen Brothers, but I don't think it is; it's just been a while since they released a film and it happens to be a very good one. They've never lost it, they've just not been around to flaunt it.