Friday, July 3, 2009

No Country for Old Men: Movie Review

chigurhEveryone is after a suitcase full of money, and one long chase plays out with numerous confrontations in between. Many a great crime narrative is based on such a premise. A one line summary might lead you to believe that's exactly what No Country for Old Men is about. That wouldn't be wrong, but the movie is also much more than that.

The movie focuses on three characters, Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin), Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem), and Ed Tom Bell (played by Tommy Lee Jones). Llelwelyn is a retired welder who comes across the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad while he is hunting in the desert. He surveys the carnage and hightails it with a suitcase full of two million dollars he finds at the scene. Chigurh is an ethereal, almost mythical killing machine who wants the money back. And Ed Tom Bell is a jaded, worn out, aging sheriff.

Chigurh kills out of perceived necessity. But sometimes he kills to honour his word. Other times he kills based on the flip of a coin. He often kills with a bolt gun (a stainless steel rod blasted with pressure from CO2 canister) similar to those used for slaughtering animals. Other times he employs a shotgun with a silencer. He never shows any overt emotion while performing the deed. Strangely, viewers may not feel any sort of loathing for Chigurh but might instead only experience a dreadful fascination, both for the performance by Javier Bardem and the sinister brutality of the character.

The Power of Silence

Silence plays a big part in the movie. The most gripping scenes where the tension ratchets up are almost completely devoid of dialogue. This isn't an easy task for a film-maker to accomplish successfully, but here it is done with a master's touch.

The Coen brothers, who directed this movie, understand that the unconscious mind is often more powerful than the conscious. This is communicated through the character of Llewelyn, who suddenly awakens on a few occasions with revelations that spur him on to immediate action.

But more than those obvious moments, the directing style of the Coens emphasizes the power of what is left unsaid. Many subtle effects are channeled to the viewer, and taken together, their collective force is impressive. This is one of the rare films I will watch again because there are so many elements at work.

In one scene, as Lllewelyn lets down his guard after a long journey during which he dodged Chigurh a number of times, he rolls into a motel. He moves with weary intent towards his room, and passes the motel swimming pool along the way. A woman calls out to him and they engage in a bit of flirting from a distance as she invites him for drinks. She tucks her legs up before she rises from her pool-side lounge chair. It is one brief fluid motion yet there is somehow more in that shot than a written description of the scene could ever communicate.

Moments later, Ed Tom Bell comes upon the aftermath of a slaughter at that same motel that has left Llewelyn and the woman dead. The viewer can visualize exactly how the showdown occurred and is better off for not having seen it play out frame by frame on the screen.

The Vagaries of Life

Chance is one of the recurring themes in the movie, with the fate of many of Chigurh's victims determined by an accidental meeting or, literally, the flip of a coin. Perhaps the fact that Chigurh became a nasty, ruthless killer is down to the vagaries and turns of life as well. All three of the main characters were in the military (Chigurh and Llewelyn in Vietnam, and Ed Tom Bell in WWII). Similarities between them are drawn in the personal honour codes they adhere to and even in some of their eerily similar gestures, utterances, and interactions with others.

For whatever reason, the violence of the war together with his personal experiences ricocheted around in Chigurh's mind and turned him into a predator. Llewelyn and Bell never embraced violence but are similar to Chigurh in other ways. Had life conspired differently, perhaps they would have wreaked as much destruction as Chigurh.

Throughout the movie, Bell laments the state of the world and how it seems to be getting more violent. Is he really being genuine? Or are his words just clich├ęs that allow him to converse with others? His conversation with a broken down wheelchair-bound older man who knew Bell's father puts the lie to the age old mantra that things were somehow less violent in the past.

All the characters are poets in No Country for Old Men. Lines spoken in movies are written to be memorable, and the perfection, timing, and sometimes absurdity of movie-speak is half the enjoyment. But the characters in No Country for Old Men all speak in a special way that has a distinct cadence and rhythm appropriate for their roles.

The Coen brothers are the masters at crafting a kind of cinematic violence that is jarring and surreal. This is fitting, as anyone who has experienced real-world violence knows that an odd, unreal quality permeates any such occurrence. And just like real violence, No Country for Old Men is likely to have a real effect on viewers.

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