Thursday, January 31, 2008

Running Scared

No Country For Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)

When asked why his songs were always so achingly sad, the great Roy Orbison once wisecracked: ‘I’m from West Texas - there are a hundred different ways to be lonely there’. In a sense, everyone in this bleak and unforgiving new film from the Coen Brothers is rendered isolated or lonely, all against the backdrop of that stark and desolate Texas border landscape. It is this notion that, in spite of the film’s persistent and remorseless violence, gives the film an emotional core, aided considerably by the hauntingly beautiful cinematography of Roger Deakins.

Although it adds a characteristic layer of black comedy to Cormac McCarthy’s morally complex and deeply serious novel, it is the Coens’ least idiosyncratic film. It’s also arguably their best, as much for its powerful narrative and mood as for its superb performances. It’s certainly far superior to the superficial ‘Intolerable Cruelty’, the irritating ‘Raising Arizona’ or even the cult wisecracking of ‘The Big Lebowski’. The apocalyptic tone has more in common with their very best movies, the under-appreciated ‘Barton Fink’ and the masterful ‘Fargo’. Yet, in staying faithful to the outstanding source material of McCarthy’s novel, the Coens have found a new and more resonant cinematic voice.

Crucial to the success of the film is the casting of Tommy Lee Jones as a soon-to-be-retiring Sheriff, Ed Tom Bell. If the film perhaps has a flaw, it’s that Jones isn’t afforded enough on-screen time. He has precisely the right combination of laconic world-weariness and decent nature and his opening narration is pitch perfect. He relates the story of a fourteen year old he once sent to the electric chair, who had killed his girlfriend in cold blood. Bell says ‘the papers said it was a crime of passion, but he told me there weren’t no passion in it, that he’d been fixin’ to kill someone for as long as he could remember.’ This is the sound of a man who has seen horror and callous brutality punctuate ordinary lives, but has one last, unbearable challenge left in store for him.

The film weaves together different personal stories, all converging through the incomprehensible and merciless evil of the terrifying Anton Chiguhr (Javier Bardem, whose ludicrous bob hairstyle is sinister in itself). At the start of the film, we see Chiguhr being arrested, and then escaping through deeply unpleasant piece of cunning murder. We then see him show no qualms in killing an innocent truck driver with his grimly compelling weapon of choice – an air-propelled cattle-gun. Throughout the film, we are bombarded with examples of Chiguhr’s resourceful and unfeeling criminality.

Meanwhile, Llewelyn Moss (played by newcomer Josh Brolin) has stumbled across a trail of blood whilst hunting, and finds this leads to a grisly crime scene, at which he discovers several dead bodies (mostly Mexicans) a stash of heroin, and a suitcase containing two million dollars in cash. The film details his doomed attempts to assert ownership of the money, thereby leaving the audience with the uncomfortable question of whether he is an inadvertent innocent, stumbling into a world in which he simply does not belong, or whether he is himself complicit in an unstoppable cycle of criminality.

The film has familiar elements from the generic chase thriller, although it must be admitted that the Coens handle the chase sequences with terrific verve. There are supremely tense moments when both Moss and Chiguhr know the other is near, and one particular moment explodes cataclysmically. The film avoids relying too heavily on tropes and conventions mainly through its focus on the severe and unstoppable nature of Chiguhr’s evil. There’s a particularly chilling scene in which Chiguhr taunts the friendly owner of a gas station by asking him the most he’d ever lost in a coin toss, then getting him to call the toss of a coin that had ‘been in circulation for years just waiting for this moment.’ By the end of the film, it seems to be more the exertion of a warped kind of (im)moral authority and unflappable control that drives Chiguhr more than the recapturing of the money. Perhaps the Coens’ finest decision is, in spite of all the shocking killings that have come before, is to leave the film’s bloody (and somewhat inevitable) outcome to take place off screen.

The film is apocalyptic in outlook and tone, although Chiguhr’s confrontation with Moss’ wife Carla Jean (who bravely and righteously refuses to call his coin toss) is tempered by Tommy Lee Jones’ visit to his Uncle Ellis, another retired and injured lawman played superbly by Barry Corbin. The film concludes on a strange combination of security and disillusion – with Tommy Lee Jones recounting a dream in which he rides through a mountain pass, following his father into the distance, safe in the knowledge that he would be waiting for him at the end. He has the safety of retirement – but also the cruel knowledge that he, like most of the ordinary people he served, remains helpless in the face of the genius of real evil.

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