No Country For Old Men

January 21, 2008

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OUT: NOW

The Coen brothers’ near-spotless output splits into two very disparate categories. The first is perhaps best represented by 1996’s Fargo, a low-key but brutal mix-up movie in the deepest caverns of black humour. And in the blue corner, overtly oddball comedies like Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski have also become a Coen trademark, the visual spectacle taking a front seat and technicolour dream worlds unfolding from manic chase sequences. If you’re a disciple of either direction, this film will bowl you over. But your ranking of No Country in the Coen canon might depend on which camp you really belong to.

After Texas hunter Llewelyn (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon a gang shootout and walks away with a sack of money, a sinister killer (Javier Bardem) must hunt him down and mop up the edges. There’s very little to it, but this is the real genius of a pair of filmmakers that can create gripping and complex stories from the most basic plot points. After several larger-than-life projects in recent years, the brothers have returned to the rustic, to the subtle, to the detail. And the script spits out instant classic speeches at every encounter.

The usual Coen suspects are missing from the casting line-up, but Josh Brolin is our outsider and gives the audience its eye on the story. The scene in which he discovers the remains of the failed exchange builds a palpable atmosphere of what is to come, and Brolin’s indifference says a lot about the kind of world being created here. Even when the law eventually picks up the trail (in the form of Tommy Lee-Jones on top form), it feels like a sub-plot far removed from the real story, and offers little hope that justice will be acheived. It’s all welcome colour and texture though, and brings a touching dimension to the already rich tapestry woven by this point. 

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It’s nice to see British talent making an appearance in Kelly Macdonald as Llewelyn’s long-suffering wife, and Woody Harrelson, a hugely underrated talent makes an impressive contribution. But it is Javier Bardem and his sickening weapon of choice that you’ll be yearning to see again. His character is the picture of evil- cold, calculating and too calm for words. His philosophical speech to a confused and terrified hardware store owner is perhaps the defining moment of the screenplay, and reveals every chilling detail of Anton’s psyche.

There is no room for wasteful dialogue here, words are sparse and used only on the rare occasions when an image can’t say everything it needs to.  

As you’d expect, every shot is lovingly constructed and the use of colour and shade gives a nod to Sergio Leone- this could have been made in the golden age. There is of course blood and violence, but never without humour and irony. At the very least we are encouraged to sweep it under the rug, with ordinarily shocking acts appering commonplace through the unfussy, matter-of-fact shooting style. It’s just the name of the game round these parts.

There’s not much in the way of a climax here, but it’s down to personal preference whether or not this is a problem. In some ways the story would sell itself short by cobbling some unlikely conclusion together, but the film does seem to fizzle out as it nears the closing stages, the most thrilling ideas surfacing early on or in the middle.

As with any Coen brothers film, it’s a soulful and lasting experience. The writing hits their own highest standard and every character is an enigma- the people here are not tools to tell the story, rather their stories shape the action. The camera pulls away and lingers at all the right moments, and even the simplest procedures and daily routines are made fascinating through gentle yet painstaking observation. It’s certainly the sister of Fargo and the introverted, rather gothic third cousin of The Dude, but be grateful the industry’s finest auteurs are back, and the Oscars await.  

THE CRUNCH 

4.5 / 5  exit wounds gone AWOL      

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One Response to “No Country For Old Men”

  1. Ben Travis said

    This film was excellent like I couldn’t believe. Incredibly well made, so well thought out. Just brilliant. Expect to find a similarly gleaming review soon on the revived and rejuvenated “ihatehowfakehollywoodis.blogspot.com”
    Ben x

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