Wednesday, November 14, 2007

No Country For Old Men (2007, Coen brothers)

I'll do my damnedest not to spoil this for everybody, but sweet mother of tears is this thing BLEAK. It doesn't start out that way- for most of its running time, Country is a superior crime thriller, with Lewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) being pursued by "ultimate badass" killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, scary as fuck), while Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) follows at a distance and tries to make sense of it all. Make no mistake about it, these scenes become almost painfully suspenseful, not least for the way many of them elide dialogue almost entirely. But about twenty minutes before the end (I'll tread lightly), the film undergoes a shift in gears as profound and fascinating as anything I've seen onscreen since Lars cued up the Bowie at the end of Dogville. Rather than showing us the showdown the story has been working up to, the Coens back away and let us see the aftermath through the eyes of Sheriff Bell. At that point, it becomes fairly clear that Chigurh is meant to be something beyond a simple psychopath, perhaps even the very embodiment of Evil (strange then, how specific Bardem makes him, all the more chilling for the small touches he brings). It's here that Bell's presence in the story comes into focus, as a witness to the encroachment of evil into the world he thought he knew, not only in the form of Chigurh, but also the teenage boy he speaks of at the beginning, the California senior-citizen killers, and so on. "You can't stop WHAT's coming," as a character says, since after all he's talking more than just a human being. The end of No Country is almost bereft of hope, imagining a future in which Evil becomes a tangible part of everyone's lives, taking their souls as a matter of principle, never so sinister as when offering people a slight glimmer of hope that they'll make it out alive. You can fight, you can run, or you can bury your head in the sand, or you can accept that evil is coming for you- in the end, it won't make a lick of difference. But at the same time, it's too simple to chalk it up to a "fear the future" mindset- Evil has always been around, says the film, and the only reason Sheriff Bell is around to fear its coming is because it hasn't yet come for him. At the screening I attended, the crowd seemed genuinely disturbed and kind of annoyed by the film, due in no small part by its refusal to play nice. But for those of us who are actually willing to listen to what the Coens are actually saying, No Country For Old Men is a masterpiece. Rating: 10 out of 10.


James said...

I think you and I might trade some minor words over this one. I thought it was a masterpiece until that narrative shift kicked in.

However, I did really enjoy how Uncle Ellis told Ed Tom (is his first name one or two words?) that things have always been rotten.

Paul C. said...

Believe me, I understand. I admit that I was disoriented for a few minutes the first time I saw it. The perspective shift was pretty brutal, and it took me a few minutes to catch up after we got to the shot of the bloody Lewellyn in the motel parking lot. But ultimately it worked for me, jelling during the scene with Uncle Ellis.

It works a lot better on a second viewing, I think. Once you know what's coming (and that it can't be stopped) the scenes with Ed Tom- two names- work a lot better. Without that knowledge Ed Tom feels sort of distracting from the suspense scenes. But once you know his real purpose in the story, the movie really sings.