November 15, 2007

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No Country for Old Men (R)
A somewhat hapless yokel finds a big suitcase of cash that obviously belongs to people with a casual approach to life and death and attempts to stay one step ahead of the tireless killer sent to retrieve it in No Country for Old Men, a Coen brothers Western, of sorts, set in 1980s Texas.

Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is rather unsuccessfully hunting deer in the open country when he comes upon a whole different kind of prey and predator ó in the valley below a plateau he sees a small circle of cars surrounded by several dead bodies (including one of a dog) from what appears to be a recent shootout. On closer examination, Llewellyn finds that the shootout was recent enough that the truck full of drugs that was probably the source of the dispute is still there, and one man is alive and asking for water. Llewellyn, who tells the man he doesnít have any water, keeps on walking, following a trail father out, and comes upon the body of another man next to a case of money.

Even Llewellyn realizes taking the money is a stupid thing to do but he does it anyway. Later, after telling his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) about his find, he lays awake at night and then decides to do another stupid thing: return to the scene of the shootout and bring the dying man some water. Naturally, by the time he hikes back out to the site, having left his truck on the ridge, Llewellyn is not alone. A group that we come to know only as ďthe MexicansĒ gets a good look at the truck (pulling off the VIN number for later identification) and then comes gunning for Llewellyn.

He gets away but knows he canít rest long. The next day, Llewellyn packs Carla Jean off to her motherís house and himself hits the road, waiting to see who will follow him.

Llewellyn doesnít do so badly for a novice (as far as we know) at being hunted by assassins, but one of the men after him is clearly an expert ó at tracking, at killing and at being crazy. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) kills with the same air gun (of the sort used to kill cattle) he uses to pop locks off doors. He is methodical and unemotional, yet so bloodthirsty that he will flip a coin to decide whether or not to kill a man for merely asking him about the weather.

Tracking Anton and Llewellyn and trying to predict what both will do next is Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). Heís world-weary and yet shocked at the enormous bloodletting he sees over this one prolonged chase. Sheriff of the same small-town-filled county for years, Bell tries to convince Carla Jean to let him help Llewellyn.

Itís a mess, ainít it, sheriff, a deputy says to Sheriff Bell when they arrive at one of the scenes of death and destruction.

ďIf it ainít, itíll do ítil the mess gets here,Ē Tommy Lee Jones says in that perfect, tight-lipped Texas accent.

No Country for Old Men is full of such understatement and dry humor (and something about the scene does make that line faintly humorous). But this isnít just the usual Coen brothers quirkiness. There is a believable and terrifying amount of unstoppable death in this gritty movie, which plays like a Western but without (for the most part) the horses or the possibility for redemption at the end. We know, when Bell tells us early on that he doesnít ďeven know how to take its measureĒ about the crimes heís witnessed, that there will be no tidiness in the story.

Jonesí performance is the very best of that kind of quiet, man-on-a-quest character that he regularly plays and Bardem plays deliciously against type (this coming Friday, heíll star in a romance) as the human personification of the kind of vicious wolf the dying man tells Llewellyn he fears when Llewellyn first stumbles upon the thirsty man at the scene of the shootout. But itís Brolinís performance that truly makes the film. He tries to keep his head despite being extremely outmatched and manages to give off the air both that heís going to be OK and that he has no idea what heís doing. We ride this crazy deathmobile with Llewellyn ó and Brolin makes him fascinating company.

Part of what makes this movie work is how beautifully well put together it is. Two hours of tense action might seem like a long time but not when youíre watching this movie ó it thoroughly draws you in and keeps you hanging on each frame. The movie is shot to give us the full dirty, bloody picture and yet manages to make this hard landscape and these brutal actions look wonderful, in the same scary way that Unforgiven made its terrible settings look great.

So far, two of the best movies this year have used Western motifs, either referentially in a modern story, like in this movie, or in a recreation of the Old Movie West, as in 3:10 to Yuma. Iím not sure what this says about our times that, at least in the movies, weíre once again pushing west with all its dangers, chance for adventure and high- risk fortune, but itís thrilling to watch stories where thereís still plenty of wildness left in the frontier. A

Rated R for strong graphic violence and some language. Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen and written by the Coen brothers from a novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men is two hours and two minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Miramax Films and Paramount Vantage