Monday, December 10, 2007

The Coen Brothers’ Uncharted Territory

Before venturing into No Country For Old Men, I was told by friends that the film was “intense.” After reviving my left leg, which had cramped under the strain of being held clenched in anticipation for two hours, I would add freaking intense.

In comparison to something such as this fall’s Eastern Promises, which was a fully-developed story with rich characters and subplots (until the unfulfilling draw-your-own-conclusions ending), No Country For Old Men is a sparse and desolate story, told with little dialogue and even less music.

But it’s precisely this texture that makes the film so terse and terrifying.

When Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon the bloody and broken remains of a drug-deal gone wrong, he suddenly finds himself with a suitcase full of tainted money and a handful of conniving folks hot on his trail.

Llewelyn sends his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) to her mother’s in Odessa, while he goes on the lam – knowing someone is coming for him. That someone is the frightening, dream-haunting and genuinely scary Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem).

The subtle side-story that emerges as the films centerpiece, and which holds the picture together, revolves around a fatigued police sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). Working to train a new recruit, the sheriff seems generally unfazed by the things he sees. But as he ventures deeper into the case that is unfolding, working to protect Carla Jean, we see that the sheriff may be on his last legs. He may think he’s seen everything, but he’s seen nothing like this.

Despite being based on a novel (by Cormac McCarthy), No Country For Old Men offers us little in terms of a deeper story, backstory, or past history. We actually know very little about the characters. Still, what we do get in terms of performances is quite brilliant.

Tommy Lee Jones gives a real depth and sadness to his aging sheriff. And, even playing something of a hero, Brolin’s Moss maintains a determined and brutish creepiness – rivaled only by William Block – Brolin’s character in Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror.

Set against the barren west Texas landscape, the Coen brothers present No Country For Old Men as a rugged and frightening story. It is a rare film that gives intense meaning to every line uttered. And while perhaps a little too much is left to the audience’s imagination (especially concerning characters’ motivations); the film is highly successful in maximizing every detail it does give.

It’s a ride worth taking, and that ride is freaking intense.

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