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Coens bring one of year’s best in No Country For Old Men

by Glen Baity

Some movies stick with you more than others. As of this writing, I finished No Country For Old Men 24 hours ago, and I still haven’t stopped replaying it in my head.

The film is great on pretty much every level: It’s effective as a getaway picture, equally so as a somber meditation on the nature of evil and shifting concepts of justice. It’s also one of the best monster movies I’ve ever seen.

That last distinction might sound puzzling, but from your first moments with Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), you’ll know what I mean. There hasn’t been a madman so effectively captured on celluloid since The Silence of the Lambs. Strap yourself in, folks: Bardem’s performance here even bests Anthony Hopkins’ iconic turn as Hannibal Lecter. This is one for the ages.

No Country For Old Men, based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, splits its time between Anton and the man he’s pursuing. That unlucky soul, a west Texas nobody named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), just happens to be carting around $2 million he found at the scene of a botched heroin deal in the middle of the wide-open prairie. Anton wants the money, or so it seems at first. The viewer quickly catches on that what he really wants is a reason to pursue, to hunt, to kill. The money barely qualifies as a bonus, which makes Anton exactly the sort of lunatic you don’t want on your tail.

On the periphery is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who figures out that Llewelyn is in deep with the wrong sort of people, and sets out to intervene. It’s another perfect performance for Jones, who was already having a great year with In The Valley Of Elah.

The film was written for the screen and directed by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, who previously gave the world Fargo, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski and Raising Arizona. With that kind of resume, it’s hard to call No Country For Old Men their best work, simply because it’s the latest in a long, arguably unbroken line of brilliant films.

But I think it is. The Coens undoubtedly have their own style, but it’s the way they stretch here that makes No Country For Old Men such a triumph. This is the Coen Brothers as you’ve never quite seen them before. The film is more graphic than anything they’ve ever done (with the possible exception of one character’s trip to the wood chipper in Fargo), with more suspense in 10 minutes than their entire filmography so far. There are moments that will literally find you on the edge of your seat, clutching the armrest, holding your breath in anticipation. It’s that good.

Despite that, the film also hews closely to the directors’ well-established style. The Coen Brothers have always had a knack for the little visual touches that bring the viewer into their slightly seedy, fluorescent-lit world (think John Turturro’s ridiculous purple getup in Lebowski). Here they use the setting – small Texas towns in the early 1980s – to bring the viewer into a bleak, grubby universe, full of odd hairstyles, shag carpet and crappy cars. The washed-out color scheme adds to the feeling of inevitability, and the cumulative effect is engrossing. For the comics nerds out there, it reminded in a big way of a series called Stray Bullets by David Lapham, much of which takes place around the same time and regularly involve normal people caught up with wolves in sheep’s clothing.

With the stage set so well, it’s almost a given that the performances would be great, but it still bears mentioning. Bardem deserves a statue for his masterful work, though he’s matched in excellence by Jones. Brolin holds his own as the taciturn cowboy, alternately bold and fearful throughout the pursuit. Also stopping by to say hello are Woody Harrelson, Stephen Root and Kelly Macdonald, who does well as Llewelyn’s wide-eyed young wife.

The film’s conclusion will be off-putting to some members of the audience who prefer things a bit more tidy. But like the rest of the film, it will stick with you, and it won’t let go. No Country For Old Men is high in the running for my favorite film of the year, and promises great things still to come from two of our best directors.

To comment on this story, send your e-mails to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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