Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, Garret Dillahunt, Tess Harper, Barry Corbin, Stephen Root, Rodger Boyce, Beth Grant, Ana Reeder
Written by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy
Directed by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
MPAA Rating: R for strong graphic violence and some language
Running Time: 122
Date: 05/19/2007

No Country for Old Men (2007)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Down and 'Country'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

After two artistic flops, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, it appeared that filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen had taken a fall. Not so. They're back with their twelfth and perhaps greatest film, No Country for Old Men. This time they seem to have found a kindred spirit with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy, whose 2005 novel they adapted. All three share a gift for ear-pleasing dialogue, and the general wisdom of McCarthy's characters seems to have overturned the usual hint of snarkiness in the Coens' work. Moreover, McCarthy has provided a perfect story upon which the Coens could hang their expansive frame. It's a neo-Western not unlike something Sergio Leone might have turned in, with wide empty spaces juxtaposed with sad, smash close-ups, say of a crumpled peanut wrapper, or a dime.

Like the Coens' other crime films, Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing and Fargo, No Country for Old Men deals with violence. But rather than thrills or giggles, this violence comes with a heavy sense of regret. (It's the quietest movie about violence I think I've ever seen.) Set in 1980, the story centers around two men, hunters and trackers of a sort. They both have a kind of wariness about life, a sense of dreadful certainty. The first, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), is a Vietnam vet and a welder by trade. While hunting, he stumbles upon a grisly crime scene, a drug deal gone bad. He locates the inevitable suitcase full of money and plots a way to keep it. Meanwhile, a cold, ruthless killer, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who wears his hair like a weird curtain and uses a deadly air gun instead of bullets, decides that he would also like the money. The two experts cover every angle, Llewelyn in his attempt to evade, and Anton in his attempt to locate and destroy.

Their little dance is exhilarating at first, but it becomes woozier and more ghastly as the violence sets in. Often, the Coens refuse to show the violence, making it more harshly effective. In one shot, Anton kills a man hiding in a shower, but only after he closes the curtain over the man's face. At the film's halfway point, both men are wounded, and, of course, both men dress their own wounds. The key figure in all this is sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who goes about investigating the crime the best way he knows how. But Ed is on the verge of retiring and his methods seem to have become fairly useless in this new world so beautifully described by the title. His phone calls and deductions come to nothing.

Usually these figures represent typical movie archetypes: hero, killer, almost-retired cop, but this movie is not about fairness and happy endings or the predictable. Each character is allowed several moments to come to life, independent of the others. Jones brings his usual clipped humor to the role, and his dialogue becomes the most pointed stuff in the movie. Bardem has an incredible scene in which he intimidates a gas station man with a coin toss. And Brolin endears himself to us by going back to the crime scene to deliver the water that one of the survivors had asked for. The great Roger Deakins was the film's cinematographer, and as with his equally masterful work on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, he understands how to use the landscape to enhance the characters' emotional state.

No Country for Old Men -- the title comes from William Butler Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium" -- is really about the terrible ravages of change, and the way that only old men, men who have lived a while, can see it. It's racking up a lifetime of experience and finding it coming to nothing. The film has a hugely poignant ending to this effect, but I can't help thinking of a scene just prior to it, in which Anton has a run in with two kids. He who represented the present for most of the film has become the past, and the kids, last seen bickering over a $100 bill, are the future. In its way the film is darkly funny, too. As Ed says in one scene, sometimes all you can do is laugh. However, if No Country for Old Men has a drawback, it's that it's a good deal grimmer and less all-around fun than Fargo. But at the same time, it will be hard to go back to Fargo after seeing this new level of maturity from the brothers. This is one of the year's very best films.

Though the movie was co-produced by Miramax and Paramount Vantage, the DVD duties have fallen to Miramax. It comes with a few previews, and three feauturettes: a 24-minute making-of documentary (with some on-set footage!), an 8-minute short on working with the Coen brothers, and a 6-minute short on the sheriff character. No commentary track or anything like that.

In 2009, Miramax and Paramount teamed up for a proper DVD release, a three-disc set worthy of a great film like this. On the first disc, we get the same extras from the original DVD (with a trailer for Doubt to prove that it's a new disc). The second disc includes the new stuff: Josh Brolin's unauthorized behind-the-scenes documentary (9 minutes) features a lot of the same footage from the official making-of documentary, but with some new interviews and other stuff. Then we get lots of little promo pieces (ranging from Entertainment Weekly to NPR), featuring interviews with Brolin, Bardem and the Coens; some are intelligent, and some quite painful. Disc three comes with a digital copy of the movie for your computer or iPhone (compatible with both Mac and PC).

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