16 December 2007

No Country for Old Men

Not since “Bride of Frankenstein” have we seen hair this creepy. It may be strange to start out a review that way, especially a review of a film like “No Country for Old Men,” a modern western set in Texas, circa 1980. Yet in a way, a mentioning of hairstyle may be the best starting place for trying to process one of the most frighteningly evil characters in recent film history: Anton Chigurh.
Portrayed by Javier Bardem, Anton is an amoral yet principled villain, that is, if he says he’s going to kill you, then he has to keep his word. There is not a shred of mercy in him; the most he can offer you is a coin toss to decide your fate. On the bright side, if you win he lets you keep the lucky quarter. His weapons of choice are a large shotgun with a silencer, producing a strange whining sound whenever shot, and also a compressed air tank that can literally blow someone’s brains out.
It is a testament to Bardem’s acting, his convincing malevolence, that every one of his appearances on screen elicited some kind of noise from the audience I was watching it with. He manages to be so stoic in the act of killing, yet he is still very human, albeit in a predatory sort of way.
His prey is Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), an unemployed Vietnam veteran who stumbles upon body-strewn scene of a drug bust gone awry in the middle of the desert. Amidst the carnage, he finds a satchel with two million dollars. As he realizes that someone is hunting him, he goes to great lengths, traversing the plains of Texas, to keep the money and keep himself and his wife Carla Jean (Kelly McDonald) safe.
Hunting Anton are the Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, played beautifully by Tommy Lee Jones, and gun-for-hire Carson Wells (an unconvincing Woody Harrelson). Sheriff Bell is a man who has been jaded by violence but refuses to let on. However, even he is shocked by the things he finds in Anton’s wake. He finds an environment that he may not be equipped to handle.
Written and directed by the Coen Brothers, “No Country” travels through the bleak, barren landscapes of the desert to dark alleys and seedy motels, and does so with an unsettling silence. There is no musical soundtrack for the film, just silence, gunfire, sparse dialogue (based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel), and more silence.
It is a methodical western that doesn’t overstate its poetry. There is plenty of savagery, and the only real nobility comes from Sheriff Bell. It recalls the various anti-heroes of the Coen’s first film, “Blood Simple;” a group of people stuck in a spiral of violence that could be easily prevented if someone had a good head on their shoulders.
I am still processing the ending to the film. It is hard to swallow at first, but it is fitting. In fact, it’s one of the bravest endings of recent memory, brave in its refusal to deliver answers and brave in its defiance of convention. Some may be disappointed by it, but if you think about it, in such capable filmmaking hands as these, can you really be unsatisfied?

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