Monday, September 10, 2007

TIFF 2007 Review: "No Country For Old Men"

(Gala Presentation)
(USA, 122 minutes, 2007)
Written by Joel and Ethan Coen
Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Kelly McDonald, Woody Harrelson, Stephen Root, Barry Corbin

One of the year’s best films will also be one of the most polarizing: at first glance, No Country For Old Men appears to be a conventional thriller, a straight-up morality tale about a regular Joe who happens upon a stash of loot and the nogoodnicks who want it back, climaxing in the expected betrayal and violence.

But the Coen brothers don’t make conventional films, and the prose stylings of Cormac McCarthy have frequently been characterized with terms like exultant and dense and with sentences like comma-less convoys—and those are his favorable reviews! The cinema of the Coens is distinguished (and in some camps, derided) for its ironic detachment, broad characterizations, and impeccable formalism. McCarthy is a moralist who writes in opaque metaphors and verbose interior monologues. Their unlikely collision crackles:

In 1980, while hunting deer near the Rio Grande, Vietnam vet Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) comes upon the aftermath of a bloody drug deal. He finds a circle of bullet-ridden bodies, a stash of heroin, and 2.4 million dollars in cash. Llewelyn doesn’t hesitate to take the money, but before he can help the only survivor, another crew of gunmen pull up and give chase. Llewelyn’s intimacy with the landscape aids in his escape and he makes it home to his wife Carla Jean (McDonald). He puts her on a bus out of town to visit her ailing mother until the whole thing blows over.

Local Sheriff Ed Tom Bell ( Jones) and his deputy Wendell (Deadwood’s Garret Dillahunt) discover the crime scene and Moss’ abandoned vehicle. Bell is also a veteran, of the Second World War, and is haunted by an incident that has awarded him a Bronze Star and decades of regret. He takes on the Moss family’s troubles as if to make penance for his own past sins.

It’s somehow appropriate then, that a living force of Old Testament retribution, Anton Chigurh, emerges from the desert to locate the missing cash. Chigurh speaks in riddles and loves toying with his victims (basically, anyone who crosses his path) before dispatching them with his unusual weapon—a cattle stun gun—which is ideal for bursting locks as well as human heads. Unaware that there’s a transponder in the stolen money bag, Llewelyn crosses the border into Tijuana. But Chigurh maintains pursuit, seemingly more by supernatural predestination than technology.

Enter private eye Carson Wells (Harrelson), who’s hired by an anonymous businessman (Root) to recover the money. Wells is cocky and efficient and soon establishes contact with Moss in Mexico to bargain for an exchange. But fate has brought him to the same hotel as Chigurh and he’s killed. When Moss calls Wells’ number, Chigurh answers and informs him matter-of-factly that while he should consider himself a dead man, his wife’s life will be spared if he hands over the cash…

Always two steps behind as the trail splinters and the bodies pile up, Bell cannot fathom the senselessness of it all, which he fears is a portent for darker days to come…

Save for a few minor changes (mostly structural) the novel has been translated more or less intact—I read it in two sittings and found it to very film-friendly, with its sparse descriptions, pithy dialogue, and action-heavy scenes. The Coens succeed in capturing the novel’s two voices: the third person, and Bell’s first person account, trimmed here to bookend the film. McCarthy’s underlying theme (the title, never explicitly explained, is a quote from Yeats’ “Sailing From Byzantium”) plays out a bit more obtusely on the screen than on the page, but then ambiguity usually does...

But McCarthy’s headier concerns are not at the expense of entertainment—he’s not a writer who shys away from the theatrical (the hairless, supernatural Judge in “Blood Meridian”, the cannibal clans in “The Road”), and No Country For Old Men is still a damn good yarn. All the pulp elements are there, but McCarthy and the Coens enjoy screwing with them.

Josh Brolin, in the strongest of his five film roles this year (in addition to Planet Terror, American Gangster, In The Valley Of Elah, and the French anthology Chacun Son Cinéma, which reteams him with the Coens) aces a difficult challenge as the enigmatic Llewelyn. Neither McCarthy or the Coens provide any specific motivation as to why he takes the money or what he plans to do with it—he’s an amiable cipher who quickly surrenders his folksy kindness and decency to his war-hewned survivalist instincts.

Chigurh is one of recent literature’s more distinctive villains—a stone-faced phantom who comes from out of nowhere to lay waste to any living creature in his path with his unique choice of weapon, but occasionally granting a victim a chance at escape with the calling of a coin-toss (like Batman’s “Two-Face”, Chigurh subscribes to a moral code: the world is meaningless). Bardem—a magnetic actor who can steal a scene just by being in the frame--has fun with the nuances (the role as written gives him plenty of room to invent) and manages to give life to what could’ve been a heavy-handed symbol-- an existential Terminator (he even performs some icky self-surgery) embodying Bell’s dread of what the future holds.

Tommy Lee Jones and McCarthy are such a perfect match that it seems as if Bell’s laconic musings were written for the actor’s hang-dog cadence, which can sell a line like “when you quit hearing `sir' and `ma'am,' the rest is sure to follow” without a stitch of irony. Jones’ recent directorial debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada owed a visual and philosophical debt to McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy”, and it’s been reported that Jones owns the rights to “Blood Meridian” with plans film it when he feels ready (on the other hand, the IMDB lists it as a future Ridley Scott project). His role here is small but essential as the story’s anchor: Bell pines for the “old days” in which the bloodshed he witnessed on the battlefield and encountered on the Texas streets were of a type he could understand. A wistful interlude between Bell and his aged mentor is the second extended dialogue scene between Jones and Barry Corbin at TIFF 2007 to debate the collapse of a moral code and the escalating savagery and banality of violence (the other is Paul Haggis’ Iraq-themed In The Valley Of Elah).

Roger Deakins’ cinematography brilliantly captures a range of distinctive palettes, from the shimmering, southern-fried landscapes, to ominous nocturnal open spaces (the initial desert chase, captured largely in the headlights of the pursuit vehicles, is breathtaking), to the shadowed, spare interiors of border town hotels. But he also reels in his considerable mastery of the frame to linger on some truly great faces that are often required to evoke more than the dialogue.

As for Carter Burwell’s score—well, it’s an odd credit, as there isn’t one. At all. Unless my recollection is faulty (I’m writing this a few days after the screening, and my head is still buzzing as I try to process it all), the “music” is found here in the silences—the wind through the brush in the desert, the crackle of tires on asphalt, the creaking of floorboards—punctuated by startling staccato rounds of gunfire. The only literal music heard until the end credits is the sudden sonic burst (and it’s quite a jolt!) of a mariachi band when Moss awakens in Tijuana.

No Country For Old Men reminds us that early in their careers, the Coens were heralded as innovative suspense stylists with their intimate noir debut Blood Simple and the sweeping gangster drama Miller’s Crossing. After a run of absurdist comedies, the brothers thankfully haven’t lost their nihilistic edge: they've fashioned a sh*t-kicker cousin to Fargo, a seemingly simple fable steeped in symbolic landscapes, regional dialects, confounding motivations, and outrageous savagery from which the extremes of human behavior spiral into equal parts humour and horror.

©2007 Robert J. Lewis