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No Country for Old Men

“No Country For Old Men” is grim and suspenseful, a first-rate cat and mouse thriller set in the Modern West, as only the Coen brothers understand it. It seems to want to be more than that — a kind of Nietzcheian rumination on mankind and morality, perhaps — but can’t really keep up its end of that kind of philosophical conversation. It’s too devoted to being suspenseful, entertaining, and horrifying.

Llewellyn Moss(Josh Brolin) is an antelope hunter who stumbles on a drug deal gone bad. He walks away with the money – $2 million of it – but doesn’t know there’s a transmitter in the suitcase, and a very grim, very determined man after him. Javier Bardim is Anton Chigurrh, who kills people with an oxygen tank and likes to play mental games with them beforehand. (Well, he plays the games. I can’t tell if he likes it.) The media kit describes him as psychotic, but he’s no psycho killer. There’s nothing psychological about him. There’s hardly anything human about him. If the end of the movie revealed he was an alien bounty hunter, I would hardly have been surprised.

Moss is smart enough, to be a worthy mark for a guy like Chigurrh, who picks off gas station attendants and hotel clerks with nary a blink. The cat and mouse between them is tense, smart, and dark. There is no soundtrack but the wind. Some of the scenes are so well shot, and played, it’s almost disappointing to see them end. You’d like to linger there, continue to watch these actors, and everyone behind them, continue to practice their art with such precision and excellence.

These are the good parts of the movie, but they aren’t the only parts. Tommy Lee Jones is a sheriff on their trail, but he mostly just hangs around to mourn about how much the world has changed from the old days. He is allowed to both begin the movie with a voiceover and end it with a monologue about a dream, and pretty much has to carry the philosophical weight of the movie by himself. Then there’s Woody Harrelson. He appears for a few moments as a bounty hunter tracking Chigurrh, and then is gone. I see no reason for him to be in the movie at all, except to delay the cat and mouse for a few precious moments.

The point seems to be that the world is all too gullible, too naive, too trusting. This plays to the bad guy’s advantage. The good guy, who is not gullible naive, or trusting, is betrayed by the people around him who are. He is a member of a community — this is almost always a prerequisite of being a good guy — and the bad guy is a loner. There is no one to betray him, because he leaves no one to betray him.

The ending stumbles. The tension is gone, the story resolved, and then the movie goes on for another twenty or so minutes, for no good reason. The Coens hammer home the thematic points, as if we weren’t smart enough to pick up on them. There is so much that is really top notch in this movie, but in the end, I’m left wishing it had a better editor.

It’s good to see the Coen brothers making quality movies again. Their last few have been real stinkers. But they have arguably made their best movies when they stay inside genre constrictions; movies like “Blood Simple” and “The Big Lebowski” and “Raising Arizona.” I wish they would have let “No Country for Old Men” be simply an exercise in genre: a quality cat-and-mouse thriller. On that level it works — oh, how it works. But only on that level.

Recommended

  • if, like me, you think slow scenes are more suspenseful than fast ones
  • for fans of the Coen Brothers. They’re finally back on their game.
  • if you like to be creeped out by bad guys

Not Recommended

  • as usual, if you require a happy ending
  • if you prefer fast paced, action-packed thrillers
  • if you’re feeling happy about the world and the people in it
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  1. Movie Blog: Top 10 Movies of 2007 « Gonnawatchit.com linked to this post on August 11, 2008

    [...] 8. No Country For Old Men [...]

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