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No Country for Old Men (2007) January 19, 2008

Posted by gproject in : Cinema, Recently Viewed , trackback

Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Amidst what can only be described as rave reviews from film festival screenings and US theatrical runs at the end of last year, directing team Joel & Ethan Coen’s No Country For Old Men finally rolls into UK cinemas this weekend for what is likely to be a similar round of critical success.  But sat in a preview earlier in the week gave way to a sinking feeling that critical admiration of the kind received here, often points to a divergence from the norm rather than a film for everyone to digest and enjoy.  It’s brilliantly subversive in a filmmaking sense and undoubtedly unique, but those qualities don’t necessarily endear the film to all audiences - in some cases, I’d argue they hurt it.  The Coen’s have indeed created something of profound inspiration and, subsequently, left me in a tailspin of confliction.

Set in 1980, the story is a simple one.  When Texan welder Llewelyn Moss discovers the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad, he tracks the last man standing to find a case full of money - $2 million to be precise.  A crisis of conscience that same evening leads him to return to the scene of the crime, which unfortunately allows murderous sociopath Anton Chigurh to pick up his trail.  With little choice, Moss sends his wife to a safe place and goes on the run, followed at every turn by Chigurh.  Meanwhile, the high powers behind the drug deal send a man named Carson Wells to try and sort out the situation, while local Sheriff Ed Tom Bell attempts to locate Moss for his own safety, and bemoans that the world of today needs more fixing than he alone can handle.

I’ll start with the things this film has going for it of which, believe me, there are many.  The central cast put in superb performances including Josh Brolin in full brooding intensity as the on-the-run cowboy Llewelyn Moss, Kelly Macdonald as his wife, and a smaller role for Woody Harrelson playing a ’situation consultant’ of sorts, who barely gets a chance to make his mark.  Almost overseeing the movie is Sheriff Bell, a disillusioned lawman struggling to keep a grasp on the ever changing world around him, and played with quiet charm by Tommy Lee Jones.  It is Javier Bardem, however, who will garner the most attention as the ruthless murderer of the piece and cat to Brolin’s mouse, Anton Chigurh.  His appearance is your first hint at the bizarre nature of the character, but Bardem plays him as a dispassionate and disconnected soul hidden behind a bowl haircut - immensely scary when you see him in action.

While we’re on the subject of character, it would be worth noting how the Coen’s (who adapted Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name for the screenplay) have managed to capture all the typical chase-thriller roles and twist them for added effect.  For example, their Sheriff is highly skilled, but feels out of step with current times; their protagonist is focused and resourceful, but doesn’t fear his pursuer; their villain is ruthless and dangerous, but also a misguided human being, justifying his actions through a rationale that makes sense only to him.  They’re interesting people and while you might argue that sometimes they aren’t treated with the respect they deserve, there are points awarded just for bringing them to the screen with such stripped-down clarity.

The script is a fine example of its kind too, with plenty of regional dialect for the actors to drawl through, while the typical Coen humour makes brief but welcomed appearances at various intervals throughout.  It’s also very restrained, with dialogue-free moments that allow you to soak in a bit more of what is going on.  This visual storytelling technique works a charm and is bolstered by an interesting use of limited sound and music.  Cinematography deserves a mention as it is faultless and captures all the desolate scenery as well as the uncomfortable grisliness of violence - you only need to see Chigurh’s first kill to know that the film is not going to hold back on its brutality.  Finally, there’s the tension, which the film cranks up considerably during some scenes and to which you will be entirely sucked in by, regardless of how much you are enjoying the movie.

I know what you’re thinking - this sounds awesome!  Where’s the problem and why such trepidation in the opening paragraph?  Well this is where I get a bit tongue-tied in my attempts to explain why such a decisively brilliant piece of filmmaking didn’t leave me quite as in awe as those who have praised it prior to release.

Throughout the movie, the Coen’s break all the established rules of filmmaking in a way that does indeed enamour them to a cinema-going audience who are looking for something different in their causal consumption of American movies.  But there are consequences to breaking those rules, not least that the actions taken - especially in terms of the complete disregard shown to life and death in its central characters - while interesting on reflection, can have the immediate effect of alienating an audience.  That’s certainly something that I felt when the movie takes maybe its most rebellious turn in the third act, dislodging itself from the story you are so invested in to make what it thinks is a wider point (and one which encompasses the title more explicitly).  If it’s the uncommon approach that turns you on, then you’ll probably disagree, but I thought the film lost a great deal of drive at this point and then was left to float its way towards a conclusion that’s going to sit badly with many people.

In fact, my opinion of the final frames were not quite as harsh - it’s different, but by that point I was expecting nothing less.  Seeing it in a cinema was quite a joy actually, as there’s a wonderful silence as the film comes to a close, leaving the whole screen in a really awkward state that nobody knew quite how to react to.  But instead of being an opportunity to sit back and admire everything you had just seen, I was left cold and unconvinced.  And this isn’t the first time the Coen’s have achieved that feat: the same was true after my first viewing of one of their most revered works, Fargo.

No Country for Old Men isn’t such a complex piece in many ways.  It doesn’t pander to the audience, but neither does it withhold information specifically to be ambiguous.  Just because you don’t catch it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.  The more I ponder it, the more I realise that my understanding of it is clear.  There are so many fantastic things I can point to in this movie that it only strengthens my resolve over the fact that it just didn’t speak to me.  I can say two things for sure: firstly, this is a better film than the Coen’s last two movies put together (The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty) and, for them, a saving grace that will boost their profile back to its rightful position.  Secondly, don’t listen to me, or any of the critical praise you hear for that matter - if you have an inclination to see this movie then get out there and see it, because confliction aside, its intentions are more than worthy of your attention.

Comments»

1. Shaun Rowland - January 21, 2008

Very similar to how I felt about it. Two thirds a great film but that final third was a mis-step for me. For a moment I wondered if the Coens’ were doing a Tarantino / Rodriguez and had missed out a reel !
For the main characters, whose every move you’ve followed so far, to
suddenly disappear was a strange decision although I have read that it was faithful to the book.

2. gproject - January 23, 2008

Yes, “being faithful to the book” is indeed the quote that is often heard when questioning the choice of direction in the final act, although I don’t think that it entirely validates the decision. Adaptations often change what is in the book so that it works more effectively on film and there’s argument that some form of ‘Hollywood license’ may have been beneficial here. Still, others seem to really like it and it’s not a movie-killer, just something that mars it slightly in my eyes.


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