Electricity & Lust

Review: No Country For Old Men

Posted in books, film, Movies, review, Sam by Sam Unsted on January 15, 2008

No Country For Old Men
Dir: Joel & Ethan Coen
Star: Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Kelly MacDonald, Woody Harrelson

E&L Rating: 9/10

The signs were always good for me on this film. Cormac McCarthy has been rightly labelled as the finest American writer of his generation, a genuine heir to Hemingway in his exploration of the human psyche through violence, companionship and hardship. No Country For Old Men is one of his most straightforwardly enjoyable works, a fairly linear thriller, recounting through the eyes of an involved party. It certainly contains far more in the way of visceral thrills than The Road, his more celebrated work of post-apocolyptic, dystopian bleakness and existential disharmony. My adoration for his prose is all conquering and while the previous modern adaptation of his work, All The Pretty Horses, was a startling disappointment, this boded well.

The book itself feels a strong fit for the nimble Coens. They have been stylistically wondering for the past few years, seemingly unable to regain the ground they had made following the Big Lebowski. Perhaps even, it could be argued, it was Fargo that last represented the vision of their work that many had come to love. Fargo itself is a wonderful film, a skewed vision of vigilante justice and a testament to the bravery of good people against bad. The Big Lebowski too is a wonderful film, but it does contain the signals that style was overtaking substance. From there to now, the results became shaky. For all the enjoyment gleaned from O Brother Where Art Thou and The Man Who Wasn’t There we had to sit through the creaky screwball jaunt Intolerable Cruelty and the truly execrable Ladykillers, easily their worst ever movie. Perhaps it was this low point that inspired a recalibration of their talents.

Whatever inspired the move, No Country For Old Men is their best work since Fargo and their most unrelentingly brutal film yet. As it goes, it also stands up with To Kill A Mockingbird or Sin City as a perfect adaptation of literature, capturing all the natural truths of the book and yet painting their own picture over the prose. The story is a classic McCarthy motif of profound human questioning. Vietnam vet Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds $2m and a boatload of heroin in a Texas outback, abandoned following a shoot-out between Mexican drug dealers. He has two choices and I’m sure you can guess the road he takes. Rather than follow his life back to normality, he takes his chance for a better life. It’s his own decency which brings him back to the site later on and into the trouble he didn’t need. From here on out he is chased for his money by Anton Chigurgh, a murderous psychopath who favours a gas-powered cattle executer and a silenced shotgun. From here on in the story become anti-hero versus villain, both living by respective codes of honour. The third man in the battle is the Sheriff of Moss’ town, played with sad eyes and weary laughs by Tommy Lee Jones, seemingly finding his perfect hangdog outlet in the latter stages of his career.

The story explores the battle between this common decency and the principals of violence and revenge. The profundity of the novel itself and the story the Coens portray is this basic differentiation, this dichotomy of morality between the two characters. Moss just wants to build a better life for himself and his wife. Chigurgh just wants to achieve his justice. The two performances are great but Bardem steals the show. Adorned with bowl cut clean out of a bad Monkees tribute act, he is terrifying. The most effective scenes for him come not when he is killing either, rather in the moments prior to this when he is preparing himself for the act. His performance is perfectly judged, viciously real and should score him an Oscar.

The Coens should’ve come back to doing this a while ago, really after the relative failure of Intolerable Cruelty. But they’re back now and, as long as they stick away from their Ealing boxset, they should continue their stride back to the top of American filmmaking.


2 Responses

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  1. Cliff Burns said, on January 15, 2008 at 7:41 pm

    Good review…although calling “Sin City” literature is like calling an “Archie” digest a great work of philosophy. “Sin City” was just a COMIC BOOK, man, and, like most COMIC BOOKS, it has about a Grade Eight reading level. Cormac McCarthy is wayyyy outta that particular bush league…

  2. Adam said, on February 6, 2008 at 9:13 am

    Just stumbled on to your blog…I like your movie reviews — they’re well-written and insightful. If you get the chance, get out my site — http://whatilove.wordpress.com — I didn’t like No Country as much as you, but I just read your top 10 films post (mine is coming this Friday, a little late) and I think we have similar taste, Hairspray aside. Our reviews of Zodiac are frighteningly similar.

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