' Cinema Romantico: No Country For Old Men

Monday, November 12, 2007

No Country For Old Men

"If it ain't the mess it'll do 'til the mess gets here." - Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones)

So says the weary Sheriff at the sight of dead bodies, and one dead dog, a drug deal gone very wrong. It's a scene onto which Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) has stumbled several days earlier while out hunting. He finds a case of $2 million in cash. He is determined to make it his own. But there are men, of course, who want this money back - particularly Anton Chirgurh (Javier Bardem, so good I won't even attempt a metaphor) who trails Llewellyn with a cattle stun gun which he does not hesitate to use on anyone he may encounter - and Sheriff Bell, who knows Moss and knows what he's up against and becomes determined to help.

That's your story, yes, but it ain't necessarily the mess. It'll do, though, 'til the mess gets there. As years go by the movies I love the most, I realize, are movies that always end up being more than what they may initially seem. "Million Dollar Baby" is a movie about a boxer, yes, but it's much more. "Chinatown" is a movie about a murder mystery, yes, but it's much more. And now here comes "No Country For Old Men" which, yes, purports to be about a man attempting to steal away with a case of money but it's much more.

This film was written (adapted from a novel by Cormac McCarthy) and directed by the Brothers Coen - Joel and Ethan. You may remember them from "Fargo" and this film invites comparisons to that one, though "No Country For Old Men" eschews typical laugh-out-loud humor and goes for something more eerie, and much darker, and much more profound, and much, much better.

There are a few words I can think to use in relation to his movie and two of them are these - silence and patience. Those terms sometimes seem all but extinct from current cinematic lexicon. This film generates imcomparable mounds of tension from silence. Cut that soundtrack and let the scariness of no sound at all seep through your skin.

"No Country For Old Men" will not be rushed. For instance, take the opening scenes in which Brolin's character happens upon the drug-deal-gone-wrong and how he surveys the situation, and checks things out, and waits out the guy in the shade, and then finds the money. And how he goes about his business once he has his money. He's smarter than he thinks he is but he also seems to have some idea that what he's doing could not be considered, shall we say, the best idea. "What are you doing?" asks his wife Carla Jean (Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald, who so totally vanishes into the role of a Texas housewife I honestly had no idea it was Macdonald until I saw her name in the closing credits - which I had to watch the whole way through to re-claim any sense of strength) at one point. "I'm fixin' to do something' dumber than hell," he replies. He thinks he can pull it off but there seems to be inevitability running just below everything.

And this brings us to Bardem (Oscar nod already in the bag) and his terrifying portrait of evil. A man so evil he actually "has principles" - so says Woody Harrelson's (fantastic supporting work) bounty hunter Carson Welles. Sheriff Bell calls him a "ghost". In fact, the old men of the title seem scarcely able to comprehend what this man is about or what he is up to. As stated, he is attempting to re-claim the $2 million but there's more there, more behind it, more to him, more, more, more. (Go see this movie. No waiting for the DVD. Understood?)

At two different points in the movie Chirgurh does a "coin flip". The first time around, you don't know how the "coin flip" is going to turn out and because you don't, well, it's terrifying. The second time around, you do know how the "coin flip" is going to turn out and because you do, well, merely typing and thinking about it makes me want to curl up into a little ball and weep for the soul of mankind.

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