O' Coen Brothers, where have thou been?
Joel and Ethan Coen began their career(s) with an incredible string of films ranging from unique genre pieces ("Blood Simple," "Miller’s Crossing") to infinitely quotable comedies ("Raising Arizona," "Fargo") to impressive art house fare ("Barton Fink"). Their previous two movies, though ("Intolerable Cruelty" and "The Ladykillers"), made for a disgraceful slump.
How nice to see them return to significance and produce one of the best films of the year.
In "‘No Country for Old Men’," the Coens fuse genres, mixing film noir and elements of the Western into a thrilling, funny, artful and tense film with a style so distinct only they could make it.
While hunting, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) happens on the scene of a drug deal gone bad. Seeing it as a victimless crime, Llewelyn takes a satchel holding $2 million. The fellows who were to receive the money object to its disappearing, of course, so they send assassin/tracker/scary bad guy Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) to find the cash and wreak havoc.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) tries to sort out the various players in this muddled series of crimes. Along the way, Bell narrates, asks the film’s moral questions and speaks its most memorable lines.
I knew 30 seconds into this film that I’d like it. The Coen Brothers quickly prove they are still among our most skilled cinematic craftsmen. The cinematography is stunning, worthy of comparisons to John Ford’s and Sergio Leone’s best Westerns. As in "Fargo," the deliberate pacing builds a palpable sense of foreboding, which is unexpectedly shattered by punctuations of arresting violence and deadpan verbal wit. (For a movie characterized by its intensity and philosophy, there are a surprising number of memorable one-liners.)
The film is an adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel, but it doesn’t seem "literary" until the final 30 minutes. Despite fixating on violence as it does, this film ends with talk rather than gunfire. At the moment when a "commercial" movie would build to a bloody showdown, "No Country" switches to literary mode and sends us away with some thoughts to chew on. Viewers may be divided on how well that strategy works.
The saving grace is, they are genuinely profound thoughts. Movies don’t often attain the same depth found in great novels, but this one does. Of course, great dialogue depends on effective delivery. Luckily, it’s Jones speaking the lines that make up the film’s philosophical core.
He may not display the range of other great actors, but as a friend has said many times, Jones says more with a look than with pages of dialogue.
In "Raising Arizona," the tracker Leonard Smalls is compared to something recently spat out of hell. The reference is comical in that film, but it’s an accurate, literal description of Anton Chigurh. He is possibly the most believable human embodiment of evil ever to hit a movie screen. If they gave awards simply for "taking names," Bardem would be a lock.
And speaking of awards, "No Country" is sure to win its share, because filmmaking and acting do not get better than this. To paraphrase Sheriff Bell, I don’t know if it’s a masterpiece, but it’ll do until a masterpiece comes along.
Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.