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No Country for Old Men   A-

Miramax Films / Paramount Vantage

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: R
Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen (based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy)
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, Garret Dillahunt, Tess Harper.

Review by Rob Vaux

I'll start with the ending, which will likely cause No Country for Old Men the most grief, and which everyone should be prepared for when they purchase their ticket. In plain terms, it is not a crowd-pleaser: challenging, unexpected, and in many ways quite frustrating... at least if you're accustomed to the way most movies end. It's the sort that plays better in novels, and since No Country for Old Men is based on an acclaimed novel by Cormac McCarthy, the filmmakers may not have wished to alter it. Critics tend to love endings like this because it gives us lots to talk about. But rank-and-file audience members may walk away with a profound sense of anger... and even those intrigued by its defiance can't deny the nagging suspicion that the directors are messing with us for the sake of messing with us.

Those directors happen to be Joel and Ethan Coen, who have been accused of playing head games (and not the cool kind) with their audience before. I have yet to dislike a single thing they've done, and even as I turn their confounding climax over and over in my head, the rest of No Country for Old Men reminds me why I hold them in such high regard. It thunders with the mordant wit, blood-soaked pessimism, and human folly that mark their unique auteurial stamp. By all accounts, McCarthy's book matches their sensibilities perfectly, and much of their work here ranks among the very best.

It focuses on a trio of men: one good, one evil, and one walking the razor's edge between. In the midst of them sits a briefcase filled with $2 million: spoils of what one character calls a "colossal goat fuck" in the Texas desert. An amiable local named Llewelyn Moss (James Brolin) comes across the scene while hunting antelope: shell casings, shattered pickups, giant stacks of heroin, and a dozen bodies gathering flies beneath the sun. But there's money too, all neatly stacked in a little black case and free of any apparent claimant capable of defending it. Like so many other characters faced with such a dilemma, he figures it will solve all of his problems. Bad move.

Enter the second part of the triangle: Chigurh (Javier Bardem), ostensibly a hit man, but really just an amoral killing machine who decides he'd rather take the money for himself. He possesses that menacing strangeness that the Coens so adore, sporting a Beatlemania haircut and a modified oxygen tank that can punch holes in people's heads like beef at a slaughterhouse. Once he picks up Moss' trail, he proves impossible to stop, even for the weathered skills of Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) -- the final player in the equation whose troubled, knowing gaze follows the other two through a growing field of bloodshed.

The ensuing drama carries all the hallmarks of the Coens at their peak: sardonic observations of human nature, stunning juxtapositions of the comic and the horrifying, and the growing sense that genuine ethics are impossible to maintain in a world so thoroughly corrupt. Moss seems a decent sort, less flawed than simply frustrated with being poor and pouncing upon a singular opportunity to make life better for himself and his wife (Kelly Macdonald). He has some ingenious methods of shaking Chigurh off his tail... most of which become utterly irrelevant before the capricious whims of fate. Chigurh, for his part, adopts a bizarre code to impose over his almost random acts of violence: coin flips determine whether his victims live or die and the ominous promises he makes will be kept though the pillars of heaven shake. No Country for Old Men delights in revealing the moves and countermoves of both men, drawing them as surprisingly intelligent and able to think quickly on the fly. Their early confrontations rank among the best moments on film this year, ingeniously plotted and delivered with the Coens' signature deadpan.

Behind the two of them stalks Bell, who provides a key sense of tragedy and resignation to the proceedings. Jones eats roles like this for breakfast, radiating the character's strength and decency while despairing that his abilities may no longer be enough to do the job. The body count mounts with stunning rapidity as savage criminals slaughter each other in the streets for the flimsiest of reasons. While Bell has the capacity to catch Chigurh, how can he contain the hundreds and thousands of similar figures swarming over a world he used to understand? The sad simple futility of his efforts adds depth to a conflict which might otherwise have been another noir bloodbath, and tempers the gallows humor with a human price all too difficult to pay.

And indeed, by taking that concept to its logical extreme, No Country for Old Men eventually plays havoc with audience expectations. As the conflict reaches a tipping point, key events are deliberately left off-screen and the final coda seems to suggest that a reel got lost in editing. It didn't, of course, but judging by the cries of shock at the showing I attended, more than a few people will profoundly wish otherwise. Such frustration fits with the overall mood, which builds slowly throughout the film and takes on a truly unforeseen dimension in the closing moments. As a viewer enthralled by the story, part of me hoped for something more directly satisfying. Then again, so did the characters onscreen, and as they learn to their sorrow, life rarely gives you what you want. Were the boys behind the camera too eager to tweak our noses? Plenty of viewers will think so, and there's little here to convince them otherwise. But No Country for Old Men still leaves us haunted, disturbed, and pondering its unanswerable riddle: final testament to a pair of filmmakers too good to consider compromising.

Review published 11.08.2007.

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