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Bad Lands

The Coen Brothers Shirk Quirkiness To Make A Darkly Brilliant Crime Movie

NOUVEAU WESTERN: Josh Brolin mans up.

No Country For Old Men

Director:Ethan Coen
Cast:Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald
Release Date:2007

By Bret McCabe | Posted 11/14/2007

Ethan and Joel Coen</P>

Cormac McCarthy downplayed the sound made by one of the most horrifying weapons ever used to kill a man in his baroquely violent fiction, comparing it to a door being closed. But when the compressed-air-powered captive-bolt pistol is first used on a human skull in Joel and Ethan Coen's butt-clenchingly taut adaptation of the novelist's 2005 No Country for Old Men, the sound is exactly what you suspected: a quick, almost imperceptible burst of air, like topping off a car tire or a bus' brakes releasing. Unseen is the metal rod dashing a few inches forward and just as quickly retracting, the entire action occupying fractions of a second. All you hear is the pfffft, which exponentially multiplies the weapon's horror. In fact, that's practically the only sound heard during this early scene, and unless you've read the book you might wonder what that metal rod attached to the air canister is. But when the victim's eyes fall slack and his neck goes weak and he collapses onto the highway in a quiet thud, you have a pretty good idea.

With No Country the Coen Brothers abandon the genre games of their most recent movies in favor of a streamlined crime saga anchored by a fabulous cast, an arduous landscape, and a tourniquet-tight script. Even though many of their usual crew members are on board--composer Carter Burwell, costume designer Mary Zophres, cinematographer Roger Deakins--the Coens whittle their idiosyncratic style down to surgical precision. It's not only their best movie since Fargo, it's one of the most cold-blooded and sinister movies in recent memory.

In 1980 southwest Texas, Vietnam veteran and out-of-work welder Llewellyn Moss (a Mount Rushmore stone-faced Josh Brolin, having a banner year following his predatory American Gangster turn) stumbles upon the bullet-riddled trucks, pit bulls, and bodies of a drug deal gone bad while out hunting. He soon finds the now-dead man who made off with the cash--$2 million in a briefcase--and hightails it home to his wife, Carla (Kelly Macdonald), at the trailer park.

Two million doesn't just disappear, though, and soon the men who lost it have set a merciless assassin--captive-bolt gunner Anton Chigurh (a hyena-eyed Javier Bardem), whose Electric Company jean-jacket ensemble and David Cassidy hair only makes this serenely unblinking psychopath more terrifying--onto Moss' trail. Tracking both is local county sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones, whose chapped born-Texan drawl not only finely calibrates the entire movie's tone during the opening voice-over, but also reinforces the notion that he should be paid handsomely to record the audio books for all McCarthy novels), who has seen more than he's cared to during his life and has an inkling as to how horribly wrong everything is going to get before all's said and done.

The rest of No Country is pure chase, strategically plotted, tensely drawn, and meticulously realized. The Coens' adaptation zeros in on the novel's addictive pull: the way McCarthy distilled his Blood Meridian Old Testament bloodiness into a page-turning pulp set in Jim Thompson's harrowing, dusty Texas. Bell, Chigurh, and Moss are stern men who can read blood trails, intuitively react in a firefight, barely grimace when taking rounds to the flesh, and stoically muscle through self-treatment of wounds. Bardem's Chigurh and Jones' Bell are the most easily memorable performances, both conveying a macabre Ibsen depth with only scant dialogue and body language. They're also a set, the yin to the other's yang: Chigurh is a pure instrument of death, the sort of man who kills quickly if mercilessly, and messily when required. Bell--like The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada's Pete Perkins, a man Jones was born to play--upholds the law, but he's having a hard time telling if he's still fighting a winnable war.

Brolin, though, pulls you into this unforgiving thriller. His Ralph Lauren model handsomeness has typically been funneled into slick, stereotypical heavies, but here he gets a chance to channel his ruggedness into cagey survival instincts, infrequent bouts with his conscience, and alert if resigned eyes. Moss is a veritable nobody with a possible string of bad choices behind him; it's just that his latest, calmly deciding to make off with somebody else's cash, might get him killed. And it's Brolin's Moss that relates No Country for Old Men to its closest kin: film noir and its everyday Joes who end up in over their heads. The Coens merely venture in the extreme opposite direction from what they did with Miller's Crossing, letting Deakins' camera capture arid lands, dead bodies, open wounds, and a killing's immediate aftermath and linger on it as if it were as common as a fire hydrant. The Coens' approach turns this often sun-drenched setting into a living hell, a noir so gone to seed that even though it's bathed in gorgeous colors, all that's left in this world is the camouflaging black of night, in whose shadows you can only hide for so long before Death--or someone far worse--comes to collect what's his.

E-mail Bret McCabe

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