Monday, October 26, 2009

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

by Allison Preston

> play trailer

A near perfect hybrid thriller. Every frame of this wildly inventive film is something to behold. Sibling directors Joel and Ethan Coen have a Hitchcockian understanding of how to build suspense with atmospheric composition, every sequence keeps the audience psychologically engaged.

The most striking hallmark of a Coen Brothers comedy is the witty repartee between characters, even in a dark comedy about murder, like FARGO (1996). We even find some of this trademark dialogue in the more somber MILLER'S CROSSING (1990). When they strip away that banter and leave behind the austere brilliance and severity of their story and characters, the result is something that can be regarded as distinctly un-Coen, particularly to an audience unfamiliar with their first film, BLOOD SIMPLE (1985), or the more recent THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE (2001). Standing in stark contrast to their lighter fare, these films and this year’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN seem stripped of most humor to make a strong point about the human condition. We could talk for hours about exactly what that point is, and I bet you couldn’t get the Coens to pin it down simply. They prefer to let their work speak for itself, and they rarely give you a window into the inner workings of their minds.

This film stands apart from other cop-hunting-killer portraits for its small details as well as its big ones. The small ones include such subtleties as a strangled cop’s boot streaks across a linoleum floor. Other directors might have altered the actor’s boots to keep from leaving streaks for a more pristine focus on the actors, but the Coens’ allowances for realism are part of what enables this film to get under its viewers’ skin. I do not wish to overlook the big details in favor of the small ones.

Anton Chigurh is by far the most terrifying screen killer since Hannibal Lecter. With Lecter he shares a quiet intensity, wide eyes perpetually close to tears, and a total disregard for human suffering. However, here his resemblance to Lecter ends. Chigurh’s language is blunt and ordinary, his weapon of choice never varies, and he says of himself that he drifts through life like the coins he often flips, without the culture or purpose that Lecter bears himself with. And I must mention the symbolism of that weapon. As Sheriff Bell tells us, the air gun was devised as a means of cattle slaughter. Chigurh looks on people as he would cattle; they are not even tools of his trade, his way of making a living, but rather inconveniences he brushes aside. He does not even seem to get any pleasure from killing as Lecter does, but rather continues to do so because he doesn’t seem to know what else to do. He is not searching for meaning, and it seems that he never was. This is his job and his pastime. It’s not an enjoyable hobby like Llewelyn Moss’s hunting, but an idle diversion, like drumming one’s fingers on a table. When drumming our fingers, we neither think about nor enjoy what we are doing. And so it is for Chigurh.

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is another big detail I do not wish to overlook. Unlike the equally ethical but far more hopeful Margie in FARGO (1996), Bell’s bewilderment with the mind of his elusive serial killing perpetrator cannot be dismissed in favor of the next case. Bell has come to the end of his career, and although he knows he’s been doing the right thing all these years, the nature of these recent crimes makes even this experienced lawman question what it all means and what any of it is worth. Both Chigurh and Bell are simply drawn by the screenwriters’ pens, and the understated artistry with which Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones play them are cause for the highest accolades

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