Sunday, March 23, 2008

No Country For Old Men: Grade A

No Country For Old Men (2007)
Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson. Directors Ethan Coen and Joseph Coen.

Brolin is a poor cowboy in east Texas in the 1980s. While hunting in the desert he stumbles across a drug deal gone bad; bloated corpses, a truckload of heroin and two million dollars in a suitcase. Bad guys (apparently from the buyers’ side) see him there, shoot at him, and he narrowly escapes. However, now they know who he is and where the money is so the chase is on. It is unclear what happened to the dope but it is gone by the time sheriff Tommy Lee shows up to investigate. He despairs at the carnage and more generally at the violence wrought by the scale of the drug trade, something he didn’t experience or anticipate in his long career. The scrub country he loves has turned into an alien blood-soaked battleground; thus the title of the film.

Bardem plays a Terminator-like psychopath who stalks Brolin through Texas and into Mexico. Tommy Lee is always one step behind. There is excellent cat-and-mouse. Harrelson has a small but standout role as an assassin hired by the money guys to take out Bardem, for reasons unknown. After two hours, the movie just stops. I’m not even sure what happened to the money. It’s a shame the plot was not stronger, but the film is not really a story of what happened so much as a portrait of the crazy, mindless violence that drug culture brings. In that regard this movie succeeds.

The characters remain stereotypes throughout. There is no story through line either, so what do you have left? Directing, terrific directing. Even though it is a well-worn theme with stereotype characters, the tension is Hitchcockian. And that palpable tension comes with no music! A music director is credited, but it must be for FX sounds. Despite all the gunplay, this is a very quiet movie, like the desert itself. I think 95% of American movies would be improved without music telling us what we are supposed to feel. If the camera cannot tell us that, then maybe the movie is not good enough!

The cinematography is very good here, and sets are perfect, from the brilliant desert to dark, seedy motel rooms. The dialog is spare and sharp, with fine use of East Texan accents and idioms to underscore the taciturn characters. Tommy Lee is such a natural in his role he doesn’t seem like he is acting. Bardem is the central character, an unfeeling, unthinking humanoid who kills without hesitation or mercy, deriving no pleasure from methodically following his destiny, yet somehow distantly amused and perplexed. It is a complex performance. He represents perfectly the dehumanization that drug culture bestows on its participants. A stronger story line would have made this a timeless classic, but it is still far superior to standard fare.

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