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Movie Review: No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men
Written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy
Miramax/Paramount Vantage

No Country for Old Men comes three years after the Coen Brothers had probably their worst year ever with the puzzlingly bad mainstream film Intolerable Cruelty and a movie I liked but was certainly not one of their best in The Ladykillers.  From 1984’s Blood Simple until then, they couldn’t seem to do any wrong in many people’s eyes (including mine), even though they had stumbled before with critics on movies such as The Hudsucker Proxy, Miller’s Crossing, and even the now-beloved The Big Lebowski.  But not like 2004’s one-two strikeout.

No Country for Old Men gets them back into looking at film seriously again, back to the tone of Blood Simple.  Although there is some trademark Coen humor present, for the most part the movie strays away from broad characters (or caricatures) playing the plot for quirky laughs in the middle of serious business.  And then, an odd turn towards the end of this movie made me wonder how I would review this film.

No Country begins with Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) lamenting the old days, or at least how he perceives the old days, days he would need someone older than him to explain.  Close to retirement, the awful violence he sees all around him has begun to take its toll.  And like most old school guys in movies contemplating retirement, he’s about to get into one last case that will tell him it’s good that he’s leaving when he is.

It’s 1980 and Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin, almost guaranteed an Oscar nomination after this and American Gangster) is out hunting when he stumbles on the aftermath of a shootout in the desert over drugs and money.  He locates a case full of cash sitting next to a dead guy under a tree and decides to take it back home.  He figures it will be good for he and his wife Carla Jean (Kelly McDonald), but he keeps her in the dark for the most part as to how he came across this money.

Looking for the money, or perhaps just looking for a reason to kill a lot of people, is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem in an almost sure-thing Oscar lock).  He follows the leads and leaves a lot of dead bodies behind him.  A mistake by Llewelyn has Anton on his trail.  And for the large portion of the film it’s Llewelyn running away from Anton and trying to leave the trail cold.

Of course, behind every crime, there are rich people.  Stephen Root plays a corporate guy who organized the drug sale gone bad and hires Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) to do damage control.

It is the chase between Anton and Llewelyn that kept me completely riveted.  The Coens use no music during these scenes and it makes everyone in the audience reluctant to make any noise themselves.  These scenes are tremendously tense and suspenseful.  And it carries the movie for a long time, until the last twenty minutes take a detour.

It is these last twenty minutes that beg for a second viewing, because on a first viewing it seems quite disrespectful to Llewelyn’s journey to take this strange turn.  And I still can’t get my head around it.  It’s not that what happens is strange and open for interpretation, it’s just that it’s not consistent with the tale I had been following the whole time.  It actually makes total sense and is quite good on its own, but it seems like a completely different movie.  It is this kind of plot direction that keeps me from the steady course of giving you a “just go see it” kind of review, which is a shame because it’s one of the best movies of the year.

Likely to be in my top 12 films at the end of the year, No Country is going to demand multiple viewings to perhaps get the full message of what the Coens are going for, and that can be the kind of film that ends up being one of my favorites of all time.  Based on a first viewing, though, it’s more than enough to recommend.


Comment from Linda
Time: November 11, 2007, 11:26 pm

I had trouble with the last 20 minutes as well. I’ve read a lot about it since, and I’m anxious to see it again. I’m glad you pointed out the lack of music in the chase scenes. Lately I’ve noticed that whenever there is music or a lot of noise in a film, the audience thinks this is when they should chat. I was in a crowded theater for this film, and it was the quietest audience I’ve experienced in a long time. Brilliant way to create tension! Thanks for the review!

Comment from The Projectionist
Time: November 12, 2007, 1:06 pm

Thanks for stopping by, Linda. Yeah, anytime I watch a movie with an audience and you can actually feel people getting into it, you know something is being done right. It actually happened in another movie I didn’t like overall: We Own the Night had incredible action scenes that used a bare minimum of soundtrack, and they were very effective.

Comment from Dale
Time: December 28, 2007, 7:45 pm

Hey Chris. The site looks great.
I think this is the best movie of the year (granted, I haven’t seen There Will Be Blood yet, but we’ll see). I agree with everything you say about it, except for the ending.
I thought that the ending was perfect. What do you mean when you say it was “disrespectful”?

Comment from The Projectionist
Time: December 28, 2007, 8:14 pm

Hi, Dale, thinks for visiting the site. What I meant by “disrespectful” (and those who haven’t seen the movie, turn away right now) is that Josh Brolin spends the entire movie being the main character (a beloved one) and they kill him offscreen. It’s such a strange, offbeat hiccup towards the end of the movie.

I’ve seen it twice now and even though I still question the motive for that hiccup, No Country is very likely to be my top film of 2007.

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