Tuesday, November 13, 2007

No Blog For Old Men: NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN -- Reviewed!

Hola, amigos.

Man, how great was it to have a rare 3-day weekend. Somehow, NBC decided to give us Monday off even while most of Hollywood was back at work as per usual (well those of us not laid off due to the strike, or on strike). Monday was a pretty productive day for me. I got a lot done, did some excercise, worked out some screenplay ideas, and assembled and used my new vaccuum cleaner ... which was so, do great. Haha, I know, I know ... but my old one had been slowly failing for a while now, and I had forgotten what it's like to have a fresh, clean, awesomely-vaccumed floor. Aw yeah.

But ... Sunday night, I had the privelege to head over to LA's swanky Arclight theater to catch a show of what had been one of my most-anticipated movies of the year - the Coen Bros. latest, No Country For Old Men.


- In college, most people who are movie-lovers usually go through a number of movie-related rites of passage. Whether it's via film classes, midnight movies, or just that one guy down the hall who had the kickass DVD collection, there comes a time when any budding film fan begins to really expand their horizons and develops the tastes and sensibilities that will stick with them always. My freshman year at BU, me, my roommate Chris, and a bunch of other people on our floor all had a common interest in checking out as many cool movies as we could, and in those days before flat screens and such were commonplace, we'd often be huddled around a computer monitor or a small TV, watching some friend of a friend's worn-out VHS tape or DVD, or even just some grainy movie we had procured by searching online on BU's shared network, just before the powers that be realized that the school's shared drives were quickly becoming a vast repository for movies and music to be freely traded. It was in those days, huddled up in some dank, cramped dorm room, that I first discovered a little movie called THE BIG LEBOWSKI.

I was in awe of The Big Lebowski, blown away. I know that many who consider themselves hardcore Coen Bros. fans don't rank it as the brothers' best, but to me there may be no more perfect comedy that this. Each line is so rich with meaning, humor, and rhythm that, even after having watched the movie dozens of times, I still find something new to appreciate in it each and every time. I could go on and on, but suffice to say, the movie instantly made me curious to find out more about the guys who wrote and directed it. Over the next few years, I watched movies like Fargo, Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, and the list goes on and on. I remember dragging a bunch of friends to see Intolerable Cruelty in the theater, reassuring them that this wouldn't be just another George Clooney movie -- after all, this was the Coen Brothers.

So man, was I excited to see No Country For Old Men. Especially since all indications pointed to this being a return to form of sorts for the Coens, not to mention a return to their darker roots, something more in the vein of Blood Simple - a hard, dark, violent, uncompromising movie. A long way away from The Ladykillers, to be sure.

I'll admit, I was somewhat prepared to be blown away by No Country, so it stands to reason that the movie might not have lived up to my lofty expectations. But as I sat in the expansive Arclight theater, I realized that I was indeed watching yet another Coen Bros. classic.

No Country For Old Men succeeds so well in telling its story thanks to a combination of superb acting, a wonderful screenplay / adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's acclaimed novel, and some beautiful cinematography, that, like The Assasination of Jesse James, brilliantly captures the desolation of the American West (not exactly a coincidence - both movies name Roger Deakins as their Cinematographer).

The first thing though that comes to mind when talking about this film is undoubtedly Javier Bardem's iconic turn as psychotic serial-killer for hire, Anton Chigurh. This is one of those movie roles that will be remembered and talked about for a long, long time, and in the end, I think Bardem's work here will rank amongst some of the all-time most memorable movie villains. I know that I've been unable to get the image of Chigurh out of my mind since seeing the movie - he is a stone-cold killer with a heart as black as coal. With a Prince Valiant haircut, an unnervingly evil smile, a hulking figure, and a most unusual weapon of choice (a compressed-air cattle sticker, that leaves no bullet and makes a horrific sound when fired, like a paintball gun on crack) ... Bardem's Chigurh is, as Josh Brolin describes him, pretty much "the ultimate badass." But what makes Chigurh so damn fascinating is how the other characters in the movie react to him. Firstly, there's Josh Brolin, who does spectacular work here following his scene-stealing role in American Gangster. The guy is definitely on a roll. Brolin plays Llewelyn Moss, a rugged, scrappy loner who gets in over his head when he stumbles onto a drug deal gone bad, sees the money lying unclaimed, and decides to try his luck, sieze the moment, and run away with the cash. In most other movies, the resourceful Moss would be the top dog, maybe even the villain. But here, Moss finds himself suddenly hotly pursued by Chigurh, and it's a David vs. Goliath game of cat and mouse, with Moss running for his life but all the while stubbornly refusing to give up the money. Brolin really acts the hell out of this part. For the first portion of the movie, we are almsot solely focused on Moss, and there's almost no dialogue as we are shown how Moss stumbles onto the money and initially eludes the drug dealers who have come to search for it. Brolin is all bottled-up intensity here, and there is one scene towards the beginning of the movie in particular -an absolutely amazing chase in which a vicious attack dog is after Moss - that is just sheer awesomeness on film. Later on, Moss and Chigurh finally confront one another after their prolonged game of cat and mouse, and though each remains just out of the other's line of sight, what ensues is one of the most intense, badass shoot-outs I've ever seen on film. This is the Coen Brothers at the peak of their filmmaking powers.

The third part of the equation is Tommy Lee Jones, who does the best work in this movie that I've seen from him in a long while. Jones plays Sherrif Bell, an aging lawman who looks at all of the violence and depravity around him and sees a world that's passed him by. To him, Chigurh is the very embodiment of a certain brand of evil that is simply more than Bell knows what to do with. We open the movie with a mood-setting narration from Bell, and we close on him. And though he has less screen time than Brolin and Barden, this is in a way the story of Tommy Lee Jones' character - he is a man on the verge of being an Old Man, and like the title of the movie says ...

Now, I haven't read the book by Cormac McCarthy, but I'm now very curious to see how well the film blends his writing style with that of The Coens. Personally, the Coens are perhaps my all-time favorite screenwriters. Their style is ... well, I'd almost call it painterly. They sketch their eclectic characters in broad, pulpy strokes, and yet define them so well in terms of their quirks and eccentricities, that they seem to leap off the screen. But there is always a real music to the Coen's dialogue, too - it's always such a pleasure just to listen to their characters speak, to hear the ebb and flow of their conversations. No Country For Old Man is yet another superlative script from the Coens, with scene after scene of character bits so richly written, and dialogue so carefully chosen, that, to paraphrase Roger Ebert, you almost don't want to see these scenes end. But it really is the best of both worlds here. In one scene we witness a hilarious back and forth conversation between Chigurh and a hapless old shopkeeper who is clearly not long for this world, though his fate depends on a matter as arbitrary as a flip of Chigurh's coin - this is classic Coens', with laugh out loud humor that is nonetheless black as night. Gallows humor, to be sure. And yet, at other times, we have largely wordless scenes that are equally brilliant - the aforementioned dog chase and shootout between Brolin and Bardem, and another memorable one in which Brolin realizes that, thanks to a hidden tracking device, the monstrous Chigurh is hot on his trail. From dialogue-rich scenes to evocative, silent scenes of the West, this one has it all.

However, there are a few editing choices here that are sure to be controversial, and that is understandable. Certain moments in the film, and I won't go into spoiler territory, very abruptly jump right past certain key plot points, and you find yourself as a viewer momentarily disoriented, confused, and even a bit annoyed. How could the movie simply skip past one seemingly crucial scene as it does? How could it end so suddenly, on such a seemingly random note? I know that as the credits began to roll, people in the audience looked confused, curious, and at times even angry, myself included. But this is one of those endings, and one of those movies, that I think will ultimately only prove 100% rewarding on repeat viewings. It's a movie that takes time to comment back on itself, and it's almost too much to take in in one sitting. But for that same reason, the more I had time to think about No Country For Old Men, the more I had time to ponder WHY these choices were made ... Well, for one thing it makes me respect the Coens all the more, for daring to try something different, and for another, you begin to realize just how much thought and deliberation had to have gone into these admittedly unconventional narrative choices. These aren't simple "let's mess with the audience" type cuts, a la a Grindhouse missing reel ... these are substantial, meaningful choices and I respected them as such.

In the end, this is another slice of greatness from the Coens, and a watermark movie for the trio of Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, and Tommy Lee Jones. Hopefully all parties will be recognized come Oscar time, because this movie - a dark, comedic, mind-melting look at evil, violence, and America - is surely amongst the best of the year thus far, and a movie that I think time will judge very kindly indeed.

My Grade: A