Sunday, November 25, 2007

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Written & Directed by: Joel & Ethan Coen

Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin

Color, 122 minutes

Rated R

Grade: A+

When the book No Country for Old Men was released in 2005, it was considered a minor Cormac McCarthy novel. Which is about the equivalent of saying John Wesley Harding is a minor Bob Dylan album. Like Dylan, there is nothing minor about McCarthy's work. For the first two decades of his career, McCarthy established himself as an important American author, and then in 1985, his masterpiece, Blood Meridian was published, catapulting him into the upper echelon of the greatest artists to emerge in the 20th century. A few months ago he received a long overdue Pulitzer Prize for his latest masterwork, The Road. So, what is the secret to success when a filmmaker (or two in this case) goes to adapt the work of such a legend? The answer is simple: change as little as possible. Thankfully, Joel and Ethan Coen are smart enough to realize this. They treat McCarthy's work with the utmost respect, and end up with one of the most satisfying cinematic experiences I have ever had. This is a brilliant, meticulously crafted film that stands, at this point in time, as the crowning achievement of the decade.

Josh Brolin plays Llewelyn Moss, a down home West Texas welder who spends his free time teasing his young, naive wife (Kelly Macdonald) and hunting antelope. On one such hunting excursion, Moss comes across a litter of bullet strewn bodies, a truckload of heroin, and a suitcase holding two million dollars. Moss leaves the drugs and escapes with the cash, and before long, the chase is on. Hell is unleashed in the form of Anton Chigurh, cold hearted hitman extraordinaire, played to the hilt by Javier Bardem. Chigurh is a supremely intelligent killer, completely devoid of emotion, who puts his job first and will cross any hurdle to complete his task. Dry comic relief and words of wisdom come from Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a sheriff who has difficulty facing the changes that threaten to shatter the cherished ethical code that has been passed down to him from generations of lawmen. Three very different men, from very different backgrounds, who have one common goal: to have complete control over their own destinies. Moss wants financial security for he and his wife, Bell wants to live out his remaining years in a peaceful existence, and Chigurh wants nothing less than to be at the very top of the food chain. He wants to be the king of the jungle, sitting in his perch, looking out over all the terror and violence that he has infused into each and every being on the planet.

Such a tale of the nature between good and evil could be bungled in the hands of lesser individuals, but the Coen brothers have brought to this film everything they have learned over the course of their careers. For nearly three decades they have put out interesting, even great (Raising Arizona, Fargo) work, but nothing as refined and subtle as this film. Every composition is filled to the brim with detail, from Roger Deakins' arid cinematography to the exquisitely rendered sound design (dig the sound of that jumbo silencer on the end of Chigurh's shotgun). The performances are uniformly excellent, with Brolin making the most of a career catapulting role, and Jones delivering each line (love that drawl) with witty and sarcastic precision. Ultimately, though, it's Bardem who hits us the hardest. His performance has already been compared to Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter, but that is an unfair assessment in my opinion. Bardem is twice the actor that Hopkins is, and in a career of great performances, this is Bardem's best. His is a frightening, panic inducing portrayal that is beyond comparison, one that will be studied by peers, students, and wannabes for years and years to come.

Films like No Country for Old Men are the reason I fell in love with cinema so many years ago. It is a very rare thing when a work of art comes along that has the ability to touch on every human emotion. As I sat there watching this film, I went from one end of the spectrum to the other, laughing one second, and grasping my arm rest in fear the next. I read McCarthy's novel two years ago and experienced a great deal of emotion, but not like I did while watching the film. To make a great book into a good film is hard thing to do , I would imagine, but to make a great book into an even greater film is damn near impossible. Words like "masterpiece," and "perfection," could hardly do justice to such a thing. In fact, the words that immediately come to mind are not nearly as eloquent, but, I think, work nonetheless: See. It. Now.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I heartily agree with your observation about the range of emotions this masterpiece evokes. Although I am twenty years short of Bells' character, I've come to many of his realizations as I've aged. We all are just a step or two behind witnessing and understanding the wrongs contained in this creation, one that more and more appears as pointlessly crafted as a computer simulation like "The Sims." It is trite to dismiss the story as an allegorical treatment about American involvement in Vietnam or Iraq because at its heart the film is more about the human condition as it has always been and not rooted in some place or time. As many of the characters suggest, we are both the hunter and the hunted. We are both one looking for the easy score (as embodied in Brolin's portrayal) and another who will delay gratification by pushing the Sisyphus rock towards a retirement of useless contemplation, where we finally have the leisure to contemplate the meaning of our dreams which ends up being more exhausting and far less rewarding than our physical labors.