Monday, Nov. 26, 2007

No Country For Old Men

By David Luhrssen
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No Country for Old Men

New Territory for the Coens?

November 26, 2007 | 07:42 AM

Joel and Ethan Coen have been off-stride in recent years, proffering a charmless remake of The Lady Killers and all-quirks-and-tics films such as The Man Who Wasn't There. With No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers venture into darker territory than ever before, unrelieved by the few glimmers of humor penetrating the moral overcast. A few moments of overkill—literally overkill—should have fallen to the editing room floor. But overall, the writer-director duo seems reenergized by applying their talents to another artist's vision.

No Country for Old Men is adapted from Cormac McCarthy's best-selling novel of the New West, a place where the violence of drug trafficking has overtaken the worst depredations of frontier days. Contemporary criminals have traded up from six-shooters to automatic rifles. Worse still, they have no honor.

The plot is triggered when a narrow-eyed ne'er do well, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), stumbles onto carnage while hunting on the open range. A drug deal had gone bad, leaving the dead and the dying and a banker's bag of hundred dollar bills. Finders keepers, Moss reckons, never counting on the arrival of a hit man who will blanch at nothing to reclaim the cash.

The sinister man in pursuit, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), is among the scariest villains ever committed to film. He is an avatar of death, keeper of the underworld, a psychopath who sees himself as an agent of fate. Sometimes he will allow his victims the chance to save themselves with a coin toss. If they call correctly, they will live. Chigurh advises one man who guessed right to always keep that quarter. Luck is the face on that coin. Chigurh is otherwise remorseless, an evil demigod who enjoys the power to claim another's life.

Much of No Country for Old Men is a suspense thriller, a chase movie. Aided by a transponder hidden in the drug money, the humorless Chigurh tracks Moss from one seedy motel to the next across a twilight, neon-lurid atmosphere that employs the Coens' flair for recreating film noir in color. Although Moss might at first be taken for a doofus, he proves more resourceful than expected. After all, his back is against the wall.

Trailing the action, Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is a laconic lawman whose mind is considerably quicker than his muggy body language suggests. Bell is a bright, observant cop. It's just that what he observes in the contemporary world leaves him sick at heart. He is tired of trying roll back the dismal tide of sadism and mayhem. The light has gone out of his eyes.

Although the setting isn't immediately clear aside from the Jimmy Carter era cars, No Country for Old Men takes place in 1980. It could as easily have been today. The Texas border terrain is marvelously evocative of the story's bleak moral vision, with the wind brushing across the scrubby grass poking through rocky soil transversed by two-lane asphalt roads and low barbed wire fences. When walking across the land, boots crunch against the dry earth as if it were covered in bones. Even the flies buzzing around the dead bodies are sparse. The strong rhythm of McCarthy's taciturn dialogue drives the story across the silence of a wasteland.

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