Saturday, June 14, 2014

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Director: Joel & Ethan Coen                            Writers: Joel & Ethan Coen
Film Score: Carter Burwell                              Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Starring: Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones and Woody Harrelson

After years of critical and commercial success beginning with Blood Simple in 1984 and an Oscar for the screenplay of their film Fargo in 1996, the Coen Brothers finally won the Academy Award for best picture in 2007 with No Country for Old Men. The film is based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy and while it generally adheres to the plot in the book, much of the backstory about the sheriff, played by Tommy Lee Jones in the film, is eliminated to focus on the other two principals. The film is one of the few screenplays they have produced that is based on existing material rather than their own original stories. It is also something of a return to their roots, as their first film Blood Simple was set in Texas, as well as part of a continuum that would lead to their remake of the classic western True Grit. As in all of their films, the intensity and brutality is leavened with humor, though primarily through dialogue rather than the characters themselves.

The film begins with a shot of a Texas desert at sunrise, and a voiceover by a local sheriff, Tommy Lee Jones, now ready to retire, talking about the way older lawmen never needed guns. But it’s a new day and the scene shifts to Javier Bardem, a stone killer who uses a pneumatic stun gun that kills cattle to dispatch people up close and personal. When he’s picked up by a local deputy, he allows himself to be taken to the station before using his handcuffs to kill him and head back out on the road. The third principal in the film is Josh Brolin who, out on a hunting trip, sees a pit bull out in the desert that’s been shot. He follows the blood back to a group of trucks out in the middle of nowhere, dead men all around. In the cab of one truck is a Mexican man who has been shot, but still alive, begging for water. The bed of the truck is completely full of heroin. Realizing the deal hadn’t been completed, he makes a guess as to where the money might be and finds another dead man under a tree with a suitcase full of money. He takes it home to his trailer, makes plans to get away somewhere with his wife, Kelly Macdonald, and then makes the stupidest decision of his life. He gets up in the middle of the night to take some water to the dying man in the truck.

What happens next is a prolonged chase through Southwest Texas as Brolin, through dumb luck and a little army training, manages to escape the killers waiting for him. But he can’t outrun Bardem, who has been hired by the drug cartel to get the money back, or Jones who is tracking them both. And while that would seem to be plenty to keep the viewer’s attention, in comes another player. The cartel’s front in Texas is Stephen Root. He’s hired Bardem, and after Bardem goes rogue he has to hire Woody Harrelson to hunt down Bardem. The plot mainly centers on the attempt of Bardem to find Brolin and the money but what elevates the whole production is the characters. Brolin’s character, who did two tours in Vietnam, isn’t scared of Bardem the way most people would be and his willingness to confront the killer is incredibly satisfying. Bardem’s character is equally unafraid of capture and his tic of asking people to call a flipped coin to determine whether or not he will kill them is fascinating. Tommy Lee Jones has the most predictable role, but is still essential to the story.

The other aspect of the film that is so memorable is the setting. In reality it’s an historical drama, taking place in 1980. But because of the Texas setting, the wild landscapes and the generally unhurried pace of rural people to acquire the next new thing, it has a powerfully timeless quality to it. Even with the incredible eye to detail of the production design, the story feels just as contemporary as if it had been set in the present. Even the absence of cell phones and computers doesn’t seem noticeable. The winning of the Academy Award was no fluke. Other pictures nominated that year were the American historical drama There Will Be Blood, the British World War I drama, Atonement, and the modern thriller Michael Clayton. It was a very strong field that year and the fact that the Coen brothers came out on top is a testament to the confidence and maturity of their filmmaking, their powerful writing--which also won another Oscar for them, and their unique vision. No Country for Old Men lives up to every expectation for a best picture winning film.

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