No Country For Old Men

Director    Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring    Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Kelly Macdonald, Woody Harrelson
Release    November 21st (US) January 18th (UK)    Certificate 15
5 stars


4th January 2008

Midnight. Llewelyn Moss stirs in his bed, gets up and puts his boots on. "I'm fixin' to do something dumber'n hell," he tells his wife Carla (Kelly McDonald) as he heads out of his trailer. A few minutes later, he's fleeing for his life across the pitch black desert plain, pursued by a truck full of shotgun-wielding bad guys and a rabid dog. On the horizon, a lightning bolt smashes through the night air. A storm is coming, and boy howdy, is Llewelyn Moss in trouble.

No Country For Old Men is virtuouso filmmaking. It's far and away the frontrunner for Best Picture at this year's Oscars: a pitch-perfect masterclass in tension and foreboding, matching subtle character work with outstanding performances, a desolate score with stark visuals and the wonderful prose of Cormac McCarthy with the effortless genius of the Coen Brothers. Like The Bourne Ultimatum - the best film of last year - No Country For Old Men is basically a chase movie from beginning to end. But where Bourne was fast and frenetic, this is slow, considered and exacting. It is, quite simply, an instant classic.

Brolin's protagonist Moss is out hunting deer when he stumbles on the site of a botched drug deal; corpses litter the scene, along with a truckload of heroine and a case containing $2m. When an attack of conscience leads Moss back to the same place later that night, he's discovered and pursued by a shitload of angry Mexicans and ultimately, the terrifying figure of hitman Anton Chigurh (Bardem); a recently escaped professional hitman with an '80s porn haircut, who offs his victims with an air-powered cattle stun-gun. On both of their tails is Sheriff Tom Bell (Jones), a traditional Texas lawman, disillusioned at the carnage unfolding before his eyes.

The less-is-more approach taken by the Coens fits McCarthy's novel like a stetson and spurs: wide-angled shots isolate characters against the cold desert background, while Carter Burwell's score is almost inaudible against the harsh Texas wind that blows through the picture. Under their direction, Brolin is transformed from an also-ran into a full-blown lead, his Moss walking in a confident strut which belies the obvious flaws and vulnerabilities of a man in way over his head. Bardem's ruthlessly efficient killer makes for a chilling foe; he is a shark-eyed man of twisted morals, a pale-faced personification of the Grim Reaper himself. Hannibal Lecter? Patrick Bateman? Any other screen psycho from the last fifty years you'd care to mention? Chigurh shits 'em.

The nail-biting confrontations between Chigurh and Moss are masterfully shot, the key being the simple fact that neither man appears on screen with his enemy at any given moment. The closest you get to a showdown is the excruciatingly tense scene in which both men wait nervously on either side of the same hotel room door: shot in almost absolute silence and with minimal lighting, it'll have your heart beating out of your chest. It's scarier than most horror movies: you'll certainly never look at a doorknob in the same way again.

If Brolin and Bardem provide the thrills (of which there are many) and the spills (both men prove to be anything but bulletproof), it's Tommy Lee Jones who provides No Country For Old Men with its heart. His role from the book has been pared down significantly here, but Jones hits every emotional beat required of him, his lines delivered with that near incomprehensible Southern drawl and his craggy eyes heavy with the weight of a thousand sleepless nights. Bell, flanked by a younger, more enthusiastic partner, fruitlessly traipses around Texas following the trail of bloodlust, two steps behind his quarry, yet, in moral terms at least, a world apart. Bell's opening narration and heartfelt closing thoughts bookend the movie: his involvement is minimal, his influence is meaningless, the evil he faces is just too great for his body and mind to cope with. His struggle is futile, but it does give the movie it's title - his is no country for old men, at least not any more.

This being a Coen Brothers film, there is of course a dark undercurrent of humour to counter the harrowing violence. Dialogue is kept to a bare minimum but what talk there is flows beautifully, as profound as it is tinged with the blackest comedy. Jones' sarky sheriff gets the lion's share of the zingers ("Is this the mess?" he's asked. "If it ain't, it'll do 'til the mess gets here," comes his reply) while Woody Harrelson's bounty hunter Carson Wells is good value for money ("You strike me as a man who wouldn't want to waste his chair"). Apart from the 'do, don't expect much in the way of chuckles from Bardem's hitman, though. Like Carson says when asked to describe him: "I would say he does not have a sense of humour." He does, however, come up with an ingenious way to skip the queues in the chemist: a brilliant mini set-piece that perfectly illustrates the deftness with which the Coens weave wicked humour and explosive violence.

No Country For Old Men will frustrate some: there are many delightful ambiguities left open for interpretation, including one rather major event that occurs off screen. Will it affect your viewing enjoyment? Not a jot: it's merely a stylistic device utilised to jolt your attention and make you realise just how little the Coens rely on genre clich'. This ain't your average cat and mouse thriller and to expect everything to be tied up in a neat little package is to both misjudge and sorely underestimate the filmmakers.

With a triumvirate of Oscar-worthy performances, breathtakingly beautiful cinematography from Roger Deakins and sphincter-clenchingly tense direction from true masters of cinema, No Country For Old Men is an absolute success in every respect. The story, as simple as it is, will resonate with you long after the movie's abrupt ending, and the character of Chigurh in particular can expect a place in cinematic folklore as one of the most fascinating murderers in modern film - "the ultimate badass", as Brolin so succinctly puts it. The Coens have created a startlingly bleak world that's a devilish pleasure to peek into; a world with no heroes, a world where the bad guys get away with murder, a world where evil exists, and it's got a shit haircut. Films this good come along once, maybe twice in a lifetime. I can only recommend you see it immediately; anything less would be dumber than hell.

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