Sunday, February 3, 2008

Movies: "No Country For Old Men"

PhotobucketFinally, the movies get Cormac McCarthy right. "No Country For Old Men" at long last made it down to this part of the world, and it lives up to the hype - it's right up there with the great Coen Brothers movies like "Fargo," "Raising Arizona" and the underrated "Barton Fink."

On its surface, it's a very linear movie – man finds $2 million in dirty money, unstoppable hired killer hunts for him. But in his original novel, McCarthy infused this with a kind of existential dread, a sense of a rotten world filled with few fleeting saving graces. I've long been a fan of Cormac's flinty, fluid prose, which combines Biblical rapture with a dirty resignation, in his looks at battered men surrounded by undefinable landscapes.

The Coens capture Cormac's brilliance well in this movie, which lingers over the Texas sagebrush and highways, motels and valleys, infusing them with a sense of something huge and unspeakable watching all this take place. In Cormac's books, the landscape is a very much alive character, and the movie gets that (unlike the rather neutered film of his "All The Pretty Horses" a few years back).

PhotobucketAnd of course, everyone leaves this movie talking about Javier Bardem's terrifying performance as hitman Chigurh, who's like a Hannibal Lecter-meets-Terminator in the dessert, with unspeakable appetites and a warped but firm moral code. Chigurh is like Cormac's other great villains (I'm thinking of the haunting Judge in "Blood Meridian"), who come off more as malign force than mere human. With dead eyes, bizarre hair and a knife-sharp temper, Bardem's crafted one of the great movie killers.

PhotobucketBut if "No Country For Old Men" were just a chase flick, it wouldn't have scooped up all these Oscar nods and critical huzzahs. It's about a chase, but it's also about fate. It definitely upsets audience expectations with the final act, which refuses to go toward an expected catharsis and instead turns grimly inward. Fate and chance come home. While Bardem is unforgettable and a stoic Josh Brolin note-perfect as the hunted man, the movie is really about Sheriff Bell, a never-been-better Tommy Lee Jones. The movie's soul is a man who's spent a life surrounded by unexplainable violence and who to his horror, as he nears old age and death, realizes he still knows nothing about where that violence really comes from. Jones is wonderfully weary and turns his usual hard-as-nails image on its end.

The Coens subvert their usual stylistic tics for "No Country" -- mostly they play it very straight, and very well. While they can do comedy like nobody else ("Raising Arizona" easily goes on my desert-island comedy movies list), in recent movies they've gotten so far into their own in-jokey little world that they lost a little power. (I might even argue this slump began with the cult hit "The Big Lebowski", which I never found as clever as its fans find it.) By the time fun but flimsy stuff like Tom Hanks doing Foghorn Leghorn in "The Ladykillers" came along, I felt like the Coens were drowning in their own quirks.

But here, the Coens use their directorial power calmly, wisely and make a movie that still has their voice, but it haunts you too, in a way nothing they've ever done - even "Fargo" - has quite managed. They should deservedly take home a few Oscars for this one.

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