Wednesday, December 12, 2007

No Country for Old Men

SPOILER ALERT I will be revealing details of the movie No Country for Old Men in this review, since it will be around a long time after the movie is on the shelves at Blockbuster. If you haven't it, and going in fresh is important to you, please don't read this review.


I saw No Country for Old Men yesterday. It really wasn't what I expected. Hollywood usually spins tales of bad guy does bad thing and good guy sets universe right.

This isn't that kind of movie.

Bad things happen in this movie. Really bad things. Some of them for understandable reasons, but many not. In that alone, it's a disquieting movie. Set in 1980, at its heart, it's a movie about four men. Three of them think they're smart and give their adversaries due respect. The scary thing is, they are. To a "t". And yet each one is defeated by the fourth, because his methods are utterly overwhelming. It's a frightening idea that you can make all the right moves and still lose.

Pursuit movies usually start with the One Big Mistake. Oddly enough, it's not the one that it appears to be. When Josh Brolin's character Llewellyn Moss comes across a massacre in the Texas desert, a drug deal gone wrong, and takes off with the two million dollars, effectively, he's scott-free. Later on, it's demonstrated that there's a tracking device in the case, but the odds of anyone successfully discovering it just by roaming up and down Texas are remote. No, Moss's big mistake is going back, apparently to give water to the dying man he confronted at the scene. When he arrives, the man is dead, and others are waiting. His truck and its various registration information will ultimately be his undoing, and that of a half dozen others, directly and indirectly.

Tommy Lee Jones is Sheriff Bell. Bell is the narrator as the movie opens, so indications are he'll come out on top. He's a man nearing retirement who's seen the society he understood and served erode away, leaving just the ugliness beneath the civility; the kind of man who pines, openly, for the days when a sheriff could maintain order without a gun, by sheer force of personality and the weight of civilization at his back. Bell sees in the escapade one last chance to defend the right, protecting a man (with whom he as only a passing acquaintance) from himself and the force he has unleashed. But events are always just ahead of him... sometimes by moments, or inches.

Woody Harrelson appears, although fairly briefly, as Carson Wells, an obvious closer used by the mob. His fate is perhaps the most distressing of any of the principal characters, because he goes in fully aware of the capacities of the man he's opposing, and is of no small ability himself, and yet he still falls prey.

The perfect storm on legs with which all these men are dealing is Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurn, a guy who looks deceptively like a beefed-up Emo Phillips. This is a man who seems to need to kill the way other people need to eat, and any person will do; a man who has honed murder to a hobby with his preferred method a skull-busting pneumatic hole-punch attached to a high pressure air tank. Hired to recover the two million from Moss, Chigurn goes rogue and sets out on his own course, for his own ends. Chigurn does not emerge from the movie unscathed, but he does emerge, after having (apparently) killed Moss's wife simply on a point of principle, long after he has killed Moss and, presumably, recovered the money. Like a child destroyed in the fire he started, even the men who first dispatched Chigurn on his mission are ultimately his victims, punished for the lack of faith betrayed in sending out Carson Wells.

Likewise, Sheriff Bell emerges alive, but not unscathed, though his wounds are psychological rather than physical. Bell has the skills to track down and confront Chigurn, but never the timing. Even at the end, in a heart-stopping moment of anticipation when it seems everything will now come to a head and justice will prevail, Chigurn manages to silently slip away, unconfronted and unseen, denying Bell even martyrdom. Chigrun gets away with it, all of it, leaving behind him dead bodies, corrupt and innocent alike, and Bell in an anticlimactic retirement of brooding regret and distracted preoccupation from which he will likely never emerge; possessor of a full career boiled down to a bitter residue of failure. Worst of all, he's not surprised and seemed to see it coming, in spite of all his best efforts. There's portent in his closing remarks, made to his wife in the wake of dreams, but I'm at a loss to identify of what, exactly. It will take repeated viewings, I think, for me to really get my head around it. It's an excellent movie, if a deeply unhappy one.

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