Monday, March 10, 2008

No Country on DVD

By David Luhrssen
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Joel and Ethan Coen had been off-stride for several years, proffering a charmless remake of The Ladykillers 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. One or two lapses in logic should have been corrected and a few moments of overkill—literally overkill—should have fallen to the editing room floor. But overall, applying their talents to another artist’s vision reenergized the writer-director duo.

No Country for Old Men was adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s best-selling novel of the New West, a place where the violence of drug trafficking puts the worst depredations of frontier days in the shade. Contemporary criminals have traded up from six-shooters to automatic rifles. They are men without honor.

The Motion Picture Academy honored the Coens by bestowing Best Picture and other awards on the NoCountry. The general public found the film rather dark at a time when darkness and uncertainty fills the news. Hollywood insiders estimate that Miramax spent $45-$55 million to promote No Country, considerably higher than the $30 million production cost. It took in only $64 million at the box office. Maybe No Country will reach new audiences through its release on DVD.

The plot is triggered when a rugged 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 claim the cash.

The sinister man in pursuit, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), is among the most memorable villains ever committed to film and not only for his British Invasion mop top. 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 involving a good sheriff, a bad killer and a man in the middle. Aided by a transponder hidden in the drug money, the humorless Chigurh tracks Moss from one seedy motel to the next across a twilit, 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.

Always a few steps behind 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 to 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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