Sunday, March 16, 2008

Movie review: No Country for Old Men

"Don't ever make fun of my hairdo again"

Starring: Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald
Directed by: Joel & Ethan Coen
Rated: R for graphic violence, adult themes and language
Winner: Best Picture, Director(s), Supporting Actor (Bardem), Adapted Screenplay
Running Time: 2 hours

The Coen brothers' Oscar-winning masterpiece sends chills up the spine and keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat until the very (peculiar) end

Leave it to the Coen brothers, the masters of offbeat and off-putting modern cinema to craft a film so simple yet so complex, so tension-filled yet it seems to take longer to unspool than a Texas drawl, that the reviews run the gamut from "the best film of all time" to "possibly the most over-rated movie ever made" (actual IMDb comments).

And after finally viewing the 2008 Best Picture winner last night, I can see the arguments for both sides.

On the one hand, the story is so simple and straightforward -- a hunter stumbles upon a drug deal gone bad and absconds with the $2 million in cash as a psychotic killer hired by the druglord tracks him down -- and unfolds in such an unhurried, matter-of-fact way that some viewers could be lulled into thinking not much is going on, eliciting a "what's all the fuss about" mentality that always seems to follow slower-paced films.

But on the other hand there is much more to this adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's classic novel than meets the eye, as the lines between good & evil and right & wrong begin to blur, and the only reason the saga develops so slowly is because the pace mimics the setting, 1908s Texas, which apparently was about as laid back and backwater as you can get.

Josh Brolin plays the aforementioned hunter, Llewelyn Moss, who while out on the plains stalking game comes upon a scene of a bloody massacre in the middle of nowhere; vehicles and people riddled with bullets, a huge stash of heroin in the bed of a pickup, and a lone survivor who claims he has no idea where the last man standing has taken off to.

Moss tracks the man to a nearby tree, where he too has perished, but the case full of cash lay at his feet. Sensing the severity of the situation, Moss high tails it back to his home, where he hides the cash under his trailer while he thinks of a plan so he and his wife (Macdonald) can disappear and enjoy the fruits of his lucky find.

And that's where things start to get interesting.

Hot on the trail of the missing money is Anton Chigurh (Bardem), a monotone, mop-topped menace of a man whose weapons of choice include a air-compressed cattle gun and a shotgun with a silencer the size of a can of corn. Chigurh values life about as much as Paris Hilton values privacy, and at times the decision between killing someone and letting them live comes down to a mere flip of a coin for him.

Moss sends his wife to Odessa to stay with her mom, and he takes off for Del Rio with the cash in hand and Chigurh just a few beats behind him, thanks in part to an old-fashioned homing device placed in the case (gotta love these old-style gimmicks in this age of high-tech gadgetry.)

Meanwhile the small town sheriff, Tom Bell (Jones) stays home and tries to piece the perplexing puzzle together, neither particularly wanting to nor capable of figuring out how this whole mess of a situation ended up in his lap in the first place.

The hunted soon becomes the hunter as Moss transforms from a man running for his life to a man who will do anything to fight for what he believes is rightfully his, based on the old 'finders keepers' principal, and as the bodies pile up and the two man race to see who will come out on top, the viewer gets sucked in by the overwhelming feeling of depression and dread, knowing that no matter which man wins, the outcome will not be pleasant.

"No Country" is simply a mesmerizing film from start to finish. The acting is superb, from the always excellent Jones to the Oscar-winning Bardem. The Spaniard became the first from his country to win the Best Actor trophy, and it was rightfully deserved. Never has a man in such a foolish wig who spoke in such a soft, sensible manner inspired such fear and fascination as Bardem's beguiling bad man. His character is the stuff nightmares are made of, and Bardem's seemingly effortless portrayal is one that will go down in cinematic history.

Brolin, in my wife's & I's opinion, was criminally overlooked for a Best Supporting Actor nom; its amazing that he continues to do his best work now after 20+ years in the biz.

Macdonald, a little-known Irish lass, was terrific as Moss' naive-yet-supportive wife Carla Jean, and even the long lost Woody Harrelson turns in a fine performance as a hit man sent to stop the crazed killer Chigurh; he delivers some of the best lines in the film, especially this spot-on description of his rival: "You don't understand. You can't make a deal with him. Even if you gave him the money he'd still kill you. He's a peculiar man."

Aside from the acting, the cinematography, from the sweeping vistas of the Southwest to close quarters shots of hotel rooms and AC vents, is outstanding, and the score, as subtle and understated as most of the film, lets the sense of dread build without knocking you over the head with drama-signifying crescendos.

The one problem people who love the film might have is with the ending, but let it be known that the scene is taken directly from the final page of McCarthy's novel, thereby preserving the integrity of the story while possibly pissing off viewers who wanted a bit more...closure.

But in this film the only closure comes from knowing that evil works in mysterious ways and comes in many forms.

Therefore if you ever see a lumbering man in a Beatle haircut carrying an air canister and an eerie look, please run.

And whatever you do, don't take his money.

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