Saturday, November 17, 2007

A dark masterpiece from the Coen brothers

Summary: "No Country for Old Men'' ranks as one of the strongest films of the year. In adapting a Cormac McCarthy novel for the screen, the Coen brothers serve up nearly unbearable amounts of tension, and their picture becomes a gritty meditation on the power of fate and the implacability of evil.

Tommy Lee Jones' face can look as worn-out as an old sofa and as tough as a steel-toed boot. In "No Country For Old Men," that face serves Jones well, standing as kind of craggy metaphor for West Texas land that's been weathered by blood. Jones plays Ed Tom Bell, a West Texas lawman who soldiers on despite the fact that he knows he can't win. It's not that Sheriff Bell never catches bad guys; it's that he understands that the battle between good and evil has gotten lopsided. Evil has the advantage because it has neither conscience nor memory. It simply does what it does.

If Jones' performance embodies the sense of defeat that stems from fighting a long and losing battle, Javier Bardem perfectly embodies the relentless march of evil. As Anton Chigurh, a man with a pageboy haircut and a heart of stone, Bardem stalks his prey with the kind of air-compression stun gun that's used to kill cattle in slaughterhouses. Chigurh's a matter-of-fact killer. In one scene, he asks a gas-station attendant to flip a coin. We know that the confused man's life depends on the call, and we watch with equal amounts of fascination and dread as the poor sap tries to figure what the hell's going on.

"No Country For Old Men'' pulls its story out of ill-gotten gains. Early on, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles onto the scene of a killing, surveying carnage that resulted from a drug deal gone bad. Moss also finds $2 million in cash, and fatefully decides to keep it. Bardem's Chigurh also wants the money. Naively, we think Moss may be able to take the money and slip into some vaguely defined happily-ever-after moment. To do that, he must outsmart or kill Chigurh, a definite long shot. Still, we hope for Moss. He's not much of a guy, either, but in this world gone sour, he's the closest we're going to get to a rooting interest.

All of this takes place against sparse West Texas landscapes -- the picture was shot in New Mexico by cinematographer Roger Deakins -- that seem as forbidding as the characters. This is country in which the welcome mat long ago got rolled up.

If there's a false note in any of the performances, I didn't hear it. Jones perfectly delivers the movie's colorful language, some of it taken directly from McCarthy's book. When a sheriff's deputy sees the terrible crime scene that opens the movie, he asks whether Bell agrees that they've stumbled into one awful mess. "If it ain't, it'll do until the mess gets here,'' says Jones, whose sardonic wit blends perfectly with Bell's nearly ingrained battle fatigue.

Brolin steps up and more than meets the challenge of playing a man who hopes that he'll be able to pass go and collect his $200 (actually $2 million). He wants to take off with his wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) and live a better life.

Some of the scenes are deceptively simple. Moss sits in a hotel room waiting for Bardem's character to show. The tension becomes unbearable, like being in a room with a cocked and loaded revolver on the table. The Coens play this scene out several times, offering newly twisted variations on a terror-laden scenario. And, yes, there's plenty of the Coens' trademark blood and guts.

The movie, which takes place in 1980, has a strangely alarming feel. Throughout, there's a sense that something important has snapped, that the country's moral center has collapsed, so much so that even hardened lawmen can't quite comprehend the level of heartless brutality that has been unleashed.

The dialog isn't without humor, but the seriousness of "No Country" can't be denied. I left "No Country'' shaken by the unforgiving grimness of its vision. More mythic than real, "No Country For Old Men" sounds a death knell for decency, and you may hear it toll long after you've left the theater.

At the same time, you may also feel buoyed. After all, you will just have witnessed the best filmmaking of the year.

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