Monday, February 25, 2008

Monday Movie Review: No Country For Old Men

No Country for Old Men (2007) 10/10
While out hunting, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds the remains of an ugly drug war; dead bodies, a whole mess of bullets, and a truck full of heroin, as well as a survivor begging for water (which Moss doesn't have). A little ways away from the scene, he finds one last body with a satchel full of money. Later that night, he decides to have mercy on the survivor, but when he returns with water he is seen. Now he's running from the killer (Javier Bardem) who is after the money, while the local sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) wants the killer and wants to bring Moss in before he gets himself killed. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.

I've seen numerous plot synopses of this film, and skimmed quite a few reviews (I don't read them closely until after I've seen a film; I'm allergic to spoilers). All of them tell this short tale, of Moss finding the money, going back with the water, and getting identified. It makes him sound like a bumbling fool. Certainly the Coen brothers love bumbling fools in their movies, and the thought of a Steve Buscemi or Billy Bob Thornton being relentlessly pursued by a killer didn't appeal to me. But what no one seems to mention is that Llewellyn Moss is smart. His only big mistake is the water, and he knows it's stupid and says so, but how can he leave a man to suffer like that? Moss is a hard man, but a good one. He knows early on that his wife has to be protected from the risk he's taking, and takes the right steps to do so. He stays one step ahead of deadly and terrifying Anton Chigurh (Bardem) for most of the film. You end up, not just siding with him, but admiring him.

This is the Coen brothers most mature film. They don't sidetrack themselves with amusement. There's no mockery or over-done irony. In most of their films, there are characters that we enjoy mostly because they're dumb, or ignorant, or buffoons. But there's no one to laugh at in No Country for Old Men. You can fear Chigurh, who shows a face of evil so pure, so horrific, that it may never be matched elsewhere. You can care about Moss and his wife, feel for Sheriff Bell (Jones), but you respect them all. And while the movie is exquisitely filmed, there's none of the showy, slightly-distorted stylization that is there just to prove to you that the Coens have made their mark.

This sounds terribly critical of the Coen brothers' past work, and I don't mean it to be. I have loved most of their films, hated one, disliked a couple. But this movie stands apart from the rest. Like I said, mature. There's something about it, like the movie itself is so strong that there's no need to dress it up.

As a tense and brutal adventure, it cannot be beat. Moss runs and Chigurh follows. Sheriff Bell follows both, and then there's the guys whose money it is, off in some unnamed city, trying to pull strings. Meanwhile, we are continually asked what it all means. Chigurh tells us early on that it's all random and meaningless. Randomness is the only thing he respects, and he is willing to spare or take a life on the toss of a coin. People pleading for their lives doesn't matter to him; pleas are empty. But the flip of the coin...somehow, that's not empty. How disturbing! Bell, meanwhile, wants desperately to find meaning. He arrests killers—how can he live with a world in which such empty souls exist? It's all getting darker, and he wants it to mean something. Moss takes no position; he wants to be smart and he wants the money. He loves his wife and he sees a way of making a better life for her. That's enough.

A lot of people who've seen the movie dislike the ending, which contemplates these themes. But this isn't The Man Who Wasn't There, in which the unwelcome ending was essentially from a different movie. Instead, it addresses themes that have been clear in the movie from the beginning; literally from the opening narration. I could maybe knock a point off because it definitely slows down; there's an almost Return of the King determination to wrap everything up. But 9/10 might tell you that I think it wasn't brilliant. And I think it was brilliant. I only saw two of the five Best Picture nominees this year (the other was Juno) but I feel confident that this win was deserved.

(No Cross-post for Old Men)