Friday, April 29, 2016

Watch This: No Country for Old Men

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

No Country for Old Men (2007)
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

"The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure.  It's not that I'm afraid of it.  I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job.  But, I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand."

These words, spoken in the opening narration of No Country for Old Men by aging Texas sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), often come to mind whenever there is a new report of another mass shooting, terrorist bombing, or other horrific, violent act.  These tragic events are frequently met with bewilderment, as people ask themselves, "How did this happen?  Why would somebody do such a thing?"  It is difficult to wrap your mind around events like these and to make sense of them, and it is in just such a situation that Bell finds himself as he begins to investigate the bloody aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong and the ensuing trail of bodies left behind by a ruthless assassin.

No Country for Old Men takes place in 1980.  After an opening sequence that shows aforementioned assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) escaping from police custody by strangling a deputy, and then murdering an innocent motorist and stealing his car, we see lone hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) in the desolate West Texas desert.  Moss comes across the aftermath of a deadly shootout between two groups of Mexican drug dealers, finding one man alive who is begging for water.  Moss leaves the scene behind and tracks down the missing money, which consists of two million dollars in a black case.  He takes the money home, but feels guilty and returns with water for the dying Mexican.  This well-intentioned decision proves unfortunate when armed men show up, but Moss escapes and returns home, where he sends his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), to her mother's and heads out of town with the money.  In the meantime, Chigurh has been hired to recover the missing cash, but he kills two of his employers and begins to track down the money using a transponder that was hidden in the case.  The following morning, Bell and his deputy, Wendell (Garret Dillahunt), begin investigating the drug deal shootout and find their way to Moss's trailer, where they realize they have just missed Chigurh.

What ensues is an increasingly deadly cat-and-mouse game as Chigurh follows Moss to El Paso, where a shootout occurs that leaves both men wounded.  We find that the same man who hired Chigurh (a nameless "accountant" played by Stephen Root) has also enlisted the services of a group of well-armed Mexicans and an ex-military operative named Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), who offers to help Moss while he recovers from his wounds in a Mexican hospital.  Moss, a tough Vietnam veteran, is determined to best Chigurh on his own, and refuses Wells's offer.  As Chigurh and the Mexicans move ever closer to Moss, with Bell only a step behind and admittedly overmatched, the story moves toward its violent, inevitable conclusion.

Chigurh is the embodiment of Bell's "something I don't understand."  The term "bad guy" does not even come close to doing the character justice, as he seems to be not just a man, but a malevolent force of evil that is almost inhuman in nature.  He will stop at nothing to get his hands on the money.  His brand of violence is indeed, to borrow Bell's expression, hard to measure.  Rather than using a traditional firearm, he carries around an air-powered bolt gun, designed to kill cattle quickly by shooting a metal bolt into the cow's brain.  It is an odd but effective choice of weapon.  The character is made all the more terrifying due to the unusual haircut donned by Bardem in the role, and by his detached manner.  It is chilling to think that someone like this might actually exist.

Javier Bardem won a much-deserved Academy Award for his portrayal of Anton Chigurh, and it is truly an unforgettable performance.  He is cold and calculating, but there is a hint of bemusement in his eyes as well.  There is the unforgettable scene at a rural gas station, where Chigurh toys verbally with a nervous attendant (Gene Jones), leaving the man's fate up to the result of a coin toss.  It is a tense scene, played perfectly by both actors.  It is a testament to the cast that Gene Jones is playing opposite an Oscar-winning performance in the scene, and is every bit Bardem's equal.  The rest of the cast is also uniformly superb.  Tommy Lee Jones is cast perfectly as the world-weary, laconic Bell, a shrewd and dedicated lawman who realizes he is out of his depth.  It is difficult to imagine the film's narration spoken in any voice other than Jones's measured drawl.  Josh Brolin shines as Moss in a prominent role that features surprisingly little dialogue.  It was the role that rejuvenated Brolin's career, and rightly so.  Harrelson and Macdonald are likewise superb in their small supporting roles, as is veteran character actress Beth Grant as Carla Jean's ailing, disapproving mother.

Many Coen brothers films feature characters whose actions are marked by bumbling ineptitude.  Think of hapless car salesman Jerry Lundegaard and the two blundering kidnappers in Fargo (1996), or the amateur blackmailers of Burn After Reading (2008).  The characters in No Country for Old Men, on the other hand, are competent and determined.  Chigurh is a relentless, violent force of nature, but Moss gives him a run for his money.  "He can take all comers," says Carla Jean about her husband, and Moss proves that her statement is more than just wifely pride, vowing to take the fight to Chigurh rather than wait it out.  Bell, too, is very good at what he does, but he understands that there is someone out there who is better still.  Many of the film's scenes feature little dialogue, and so we see these characters' competence firsthand as they perform a variety of activities, from hiding money to patching themselves up after a gunfight.

The Coen brothers are writer-directors known for their highly original films and their distinctive style, so it may seem surprising that they should not only adapt someone else's work for one of their films (in this case, a 2005 novel by acclaimed writer Cormac McCarthy), but that the resulting film should remain so faithful to the source material.  Then again, this film fits perfectly into their larger body of work.  The pulpy storyline and dusty Texas setting are reminiscent of their excellent film noir debut, Blood Simple (1984), and the Coens' editing, in combination with Roger Deakins's expert cinematography, ensure that the film exhibits their unique visual style.  No Country for Old Men also features the Coens' characteristic brand of wry humor, as evidenced by the lively exchanges between deputy Wendell and Sheriff Bell ("It's a mess, ain't it, Sheriff?"  "If it ain't, it'll do till the mess gets here"), and by Carla Jean's mother's casual racism ("It's not often you see a Mexican in a suit").  The adaptation process worked out so well for the Coens that they repeated it again successfully three years later, bringing Charles Portis's classic western novel True Grit to the screen in another highly faithful rendition.

Most of the Coens' films contain depictions of violence, some of it brutal in nature, and a pessimistic worldview pervades most of their filmography.  But these aspects of their filmmaking seem more pointed in No Country for Old Men, a film that serves as a harsh reminder of the evil and injustice that exist in our world, and the violence that continues to plague our society.  Gone are the days when, as Ed Tom Bell mentions in the opening narration, a sheriff could perform his or her duties without a gun.

Of course, the Coens also gave us Marge Gunderson, Fargo's pregnant police chief, a bright, shining beacon of human goodness.  So, maybe there's hope for us yet.

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