My thing with the Coen Brothers is like a lot of folks’ thing with the Coen Brothers. I recognize and admire their craft, not so much most of their films. When they nail it – “Blood Simple”, “Raising Arizona” and “Fargo” – they’re fantastic, and I leave the theater a total believer in the mythos that’s grown up around them. When they flail, or make overrated films – “The Big Lebowski”, “Barton Fink”, and all others I wouldn’t stoop to see because they looked so mediocre – I wonder if they’re more of a brand than they are a cohesive, functioning, consistent filmmaking team. In any event, as I’m sure you’re aware, the hype level on their latest, “No Country For Old Men” has been off the charts, but it took the frothing recommendations of two friends before I’d consent to seeing it in a theater. Like most people, “I’m glad I did”. This film might be the best non-documentary I’ve seen in a year or two, and I could swear my heart stopped cold at least three times whilst watching it.
“No Country For Old Men” takes a pretty familiar noir boilerplate – good guy finds some money from a heist/deal-gone-bad, good guy takes money in a moment of weakness, guy is mercilessly stalked by the bad guys to whom the money is owed. At a deeper level, it’s a dream-like pondering about how the United States circa 1980 came to be so violent, so quickly remade in the course of a generation, so given to the hotheaded and the crazed. “No country for old men” indeed. It follows the languid rhythms of Cormac McCarthy’s original book, or so I am told, but “languid” is the last word I’d use to describe a film that is wound so tight with tension and explosive violence. One barely rests the entire film, as every second seems to portend the appearance of yet another bullet, air gun to the head, car crash or strangling. Javier Bardem’s creeped-out homicidal maniac – well, believe the hype. He’s fantastic, and perhaps the best (and most “honorable”, if that makes any sense) big-screen killer in years. Unlike “Fargo”, this film offer little-to-no comic relief to temper the violence, and I’ve heard people say that that’s what brings this one down a notch for them. Not for me – the pacing of “No Country For Old Men” doesn’t need any leavening with humor, even though the Coens are pretty good at mixing their bleakness with black comedy. The sense of dread and foreboding is both micro (I hope the good guy and his wife don’t get killed) and macro (what the hell is happening in this supposed land of law & order, when lunatics roam the plains murdering people with air guns?). At the end of the day, the fate of virtually every character is determined by the chance results of a coin flip, whether literally or figuratively.
There’s barely a bum note in the entire film, even when Woody Harrelson appears. When it ends in a soliloquy from one of the aforementioned old men, I sat in the theater wide-eyed with one of those “what the f***” feelings going through my head. Just drained, totally drained.
Celluloid Hut Rating: A