Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Film Review: No Country For Old Men

After the insincere Intolerable Cruelty and plain awful The Ladykillers, I can’t have been the only one who thought the decline of the Coen brothers was terminal.

Thankfully, No Country For Old Men unequivocally proves that not to be the case.

Ostensibly a cat-and-mouse chase that opens with Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) escaping his police escort and killing a passer-by, while trailer trash hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon a pile of corpses, a stash of heroin and two-million dollars in the Texas desert, No Country For Old Men brilliantly juggles searing action, choking suspense with a plaintive tone as it chews on themes of sin and redemption, love and violence, and, most importantly, fate and free will.

As Chigurh, a psychopathic killer with a pneumatic airgun and a silenced shotgun, begins to hunt Moss down, we’re introduced to the third major character – the titular old man – craggy, scrupulous sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who, along with his inexperienced deputy (Deadwood’s Garret Dillahunt), always remains two steps behind.

With dolorous words and hooded eyes, Bell doesn’t so much set out to solve the crimes as attempt to understand the carnage surrounding him. Although undoubtedly a sharp investigator, Bell is totally unprepared for the relentless violence he sees, dejectedly trawling from one messy cadaver to the next and admitting, in the film’s opening monologue, “the crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure.”

But don’t confuse the plot with the meaning. No Country For Old Men is about far more than an old man coming to terms with his retirement. It’s about the unpredictable, unfair and arbitrary nature of our lives.

We briefly meet hotshot bounty hunter Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson). Wells tracks Llewelyn down in a matter of hours and just as it appears the dynamic of the hunt is about to change, Chigurh gets the drop on him and unapologetically removes him from the story as quickly as he was introduced.

Chigurh is utterly prepared to let fate account for his actions, going as far as committing murder purely on the result of a flip of a quarter. In one of the film’s outstanding scenes, Chigurh calmly asks a friendly gas station owner, “What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss?”

At the other end of the same spectrum is Bell. Like Chigurh, Bell is happy to resign himself to fate. Towards the film’s conclusion, a teary-eyed Bell enters a motel room knowing, or at least suspecting, that he is to be killed by Chigurh. Though Chigurh is hiding behind a doorway, shotgun at the ready, he doesn’t reveal himself and Bell survives.

Elsewhere, Moss and his wife Clara (Kelly Macdonald) both choose to fight against fate. Moss by attempting to turn the tables on Chigurh, and Clara by refusing to participate in the coin toss routine. In doing so, they both choose death. And that’s the film’s biggest tragedy: that those who surrender themselves to fate live on, while those who fight against it die.

You can choose to view No Country For Old Men as a superior thriller in the mould of Fargo or Blood Simple, but it’s a far more potent work than that. It’s a masterful meditation on the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of man; a delicious story about the capriciousness of fate; and just about as good a piece of fatalist cinema as you will ever see.

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