No Country for Old Men
Now Showing at: most major theaters.
Review by: Larry Thomas
Given the plethora of really awful movies these days in the categories of insipid remakes, idiot comedies, and torture-porn horror flicks, it’s easy to repeat the observation “they don’t make ‘em like they used to,” or, “the 70s was the last great movie decade.” While some days it’s hard to argue with those sentiments, they’re not completely true. Every so often a film or filmmaker comes along that renews your faith in movies as a true art form.
Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have been working side-by-side ever since their attention-getting debut film Blood Simple in 1984. Along their chosen career path, they have delivered Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, the cult favorite The Big Lebowski, the woefully underappreciated The Hudsucker Proxy, and Fargo. To this impressive body of work, add No Country for Old Men, based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormack McCarthy.
On the surface, No Country for Old Men may look like yet another “crazed hit man on a rampage” film. But it’s more subtle and deeper than that. The story is set in the rural Texas of 1980, so as not to clutter the landscape, and the message, with our overabundance of high-tech gadgets. A local man is out poaching on public land, when he runs across a much more intriguing prey: a pickup truck full of cocaine, and a briefcase containing two million dollars in cash. Not far behind is a relentless killer, bent on recovering the goods if not for his employer, at least for himself. And trying to piece together this miasma of mayhem and murder is the local sheriff…a grizzled veteran of his profession, yet wise and humane.
To spin this tale into something special on the big screen, the Coen’s get four stellar performances from the principal actors. Tommy Lee Jones is the sheriff. He seems to carry the weight of the world in his craggy face. Javier Bardem is the most evil of villains… a cross between “The Terminator” and Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth in Blue Velvet…whose weapon of choice is a compressed air hammer. Josh Brolin delivers a star-making turn as the poacher who’s determined to keep the loot. And Lebanon Ohio’s Woody Harrelson turns in another fine job as the middleman who needs to stop the bad guy his employers have unwittingly unleashed.
In addition to the great performances, and the literate, thoughtful script written by the Coens, they also turn to two exceptional craftsmen who have worked with them on many projects. Cinematographer Roger Deakins creates vistas that would be welcome additions to any museum’s finest gallery. Composer Carter Burwell turns in another fine, low-key score that confirms he is one of the best movie composers working today.
Although No Country for Old Men is violent, it’s message, from a 1980 perspective, is that when it comes to violence and psychopaths, “we ain’t seen nothing yet.” And the 27 years since 1980 have revealed all too well how frightening that has become.
There are echoes of Fargo in the style and characters, and also some shadings of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. And like those two masterworks of the 1990’s, No Country for Old Men should collect a truckload of Oscar nominations when they are announced in January. Unless something really special is hiding around the corner, this is the best film of the year.