Film Reviews

No Country For Old Men Joel and Ethan Coen

Rating - 9/10

If you had asked me a year ago who I would have picked to direct Cormac McCarthy's slight but gripping thriller No Country for Old Men, I hopefully would have had the good sense to choose the Coen Brothers. The pair who brought us Blood Simple and Fargo have demonstrated a unique ability to find the weirdness at the heart of the country between the two coasts, where McCarthy focuses his pen. And while I would have preferred they take on his Blood Meridian, surely one of the strangest and greatest novels of recent decades, this book will have to do. After all, it reads like a movie, and a Coen Brothers movie at that, so everything in its right place I suppose. (Sidenote: I recently heard that Ridley Scott has been picked to direct Meridian which fills me with a strange mixture of hope and dread. The man who made Alien and Blade Runner must inspire optimism, Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, not so much)

Anyway, knowing the book, and the brothers, it was clear there was no way in hell they could possibly screw it up. The only question mark was who could possibly fill the role of the mysterious Anton Chigurh, the unfeeling assassin that mercilessly hunts down the Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin). The Coens hit a homerun in an inspired bit of casting with Javier Bardem, the hunky Spanish actor, filling the role. He's got a fucked up haircut and a dead-eyed stare that could put out a campfire, and the effect is both weird and frightening; definitely a breakthrough performance in the US for this popular international star. With that masterstroke in place the Coens up the ante, casting Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Bell and Brolin as the hapless protagonist. Brolin, fresh off a major role as a bad cop in American Gangster, here shows remarkable versatility playing a quiet, basically decent guy who thinks he can outsmart Chigurh but, in a reverse Rambo situation, is decidedly out of his element.

The film contains few of the Coen's trademark camera tricks that make so many of their films a joy to see, as well as watch. Here they let the actors tell the story and supply the suspense. As we watch Moss become more and more desperate, we sense as he does that the whole thing is not going to end well, and it certainly doesn't. The book wasn't very hopeful about the future and the movie smartly stays true to this pessimism. The whole point is that something in the heart of the country has radically changed in the last 50 years, perhaps irrevocably, and that the problems run too deep and wide for a pat storybook ending. The film clearly had to ditch much of Sheriff Bell's frustrated and flummoxed narration for cinematic purposes, but it includes just enough of his hard worn wisdom to get the message across. A crucial scene at the end with Bell and his uncle talking about the old timers is left fairly intact, which slows down the action but also provides some insight into what has gone before.

So the Coen's have given us a rare pleasure. They have managed to make an expertly crafted suspense thriller while at the same time remaining true to the source material. They've also made one of the best movies of the year.