2007 – No Country For Old Men

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No Country for Old Men – 2007

Wow!  This was a very violent movie, mostly because of the creepy, creepy character played by Javier Bardem.  No Country for Old Men was an action/thriller that kept you on the edge of your seat.  It was a back and forth game of cat and mouse that was unpredictable and unstable.

First of all, as I sat down to watch the movie, I had high expectations.  Everybody I talked to about it said that it was such a great movie.  I was told of its violent nature, but was not told of the psychotic aspects that made my skin crawl just a little bit.  I have heard it described as a modern western, but I don’t think that is an apt description.  The story takes place in Texas, but for me, a western has to have cowboys or a story that can only be told in the Wild West.  But this story could have taken place almost anywhere.

To explain what I mean by that, we need to go into the plot a bit.  Bardem plays the bad guy, Anton Chigurh (pronounced like Sugar), a psychotic killer who is the most dangerous kind of criminal.  He has no conscious and kills randomly with no thought of consequences, honor or morality.  He murders if he happens to feel like it at the time.  But he is also incredibly smart and knows how to survive just about anything.

Chigurh starts off the film by being picked up by a police officer, then strangling him with the chain between the handcuffs that are still about his wrists.  He steals the police car, only to ditch it by pulling over a motorist, and murdering him with his strange weapon/tool.  It is a captive bolt pistol.  It is a strange weapon, to be sure, but it just adds to the creepy nature of the character.  It is a device used to stun cattle before they are slaughtered.  Basically it is a high-powered air compression device that forces a metal bolt through the skull.

So after his character is introduced in this way, the real story begins, and therein lies one of the biggest differences from the source material.  The original book had the same name and was written by Cormac McCarthy.  The directors, the infamous Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, went out of their way to keep close to the book.  In an interview, Joel said that adapting the book into a screenplay was just like compressing the novel instead of re-writing it.  As is understandable, a few things were taken out, but nothing new was added.  But the big difference between the book and the movie was the focus.  The book focuses on the character of Sheriff Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones, as he tries to figure out what is going on.  The movie focuses more on the cat and mouse relationship between Chigurh and Llewellyn Moss.

Moss is a regular guy living in West Texas, wonderfully played by Josh Brolin.  He is hunting out in the desert when he comes across a drug deal gone bad.  Dead bodies are scattered over the ground.  Even the dog has been shot and killed.  Automatic weapons are still gripped in dead hands.  But moss is a smart enough man to know that where there is a drug deal, there is money.  He follows a trail of blood and eventually finds a satchel containing $2 million next to a man who has bled to death.

Of course, he takes it in the belief that he can elude whoever the money belongs to.  After that, the movie follows Moss as he runs from Chigurh, the Mexican drug dealers, and Sheriff Bell.  But he finds himself constantly on the run and never able to relax.  He receives injury after injury, making one narrow escape after another.  At one point, he finds a tracking device hidden in the money.  He leaves it behind and believes that he is safe, but the chase continues.

The back and forth scenes between Brolin and Bardem were very well done.  The two of them are rarely on the screen at the same time, but each of them did a great job in their respective roles.  I mentioned the creepiness of Bardem’s performance, but for me, it stood out as a defining element of the whole film.  That is what you remember when it is over.  That is what sticks with you.

So, what made him so scary?  It was his look, his voice, and his behavior.  First, and many critics go out of their way to mention it, was his hair.  It was a strange kind of page-boy haircut that looked like a perversion of Little Lord Fauntleroy on an adult.  The haircut made him look like he was automatically out of place wherever he went.  It made him look like a man who had no regard for social norms or the opinions of other human beings.

Interesting note:  The strange hair left Bardem’s “psyche… affected in a very delicate way.”  He was convinced that he would not get laid for two months and was too depressed to leave his house.

Bardem is a Spanish actor who had to brush-up on his English to play the part.   He did his best to hide his accent, making his character hard to place.  He has a very deep voice and all his lines were delivered very dispassionately, though with a deadly seriousness at the same time.  It reminded me a little of the voice of the psychotic character of Buffalo Bill from the 1991 Best Picture winner, Silence of the Lambs.

And the random acts of violence and murder made for some very tense scenes.  One in particular that stands out is a scene in which he stops at a gas station to fill up the tank of his stolen car.  He goes in to pay for the gas, but is offended because the old man behind the counter casually comments on the car’s license plate.  You can see the look in his eyes and hear it in his voice.  He now wants to murder the man.  But what he does just made for a wonderfully tense scene.  He pulls out a quarter and asks “What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss?” before flipping the coin.  The poor guy behind the counter is already unnerved by the man’s look and behavior.  But now, he suddenly feels that his life is somehow in danger.  He is frightened enough to attempt to get rid of him by saying that he is closing the store early, but Chigurh is insistent that he make the call.  It is never plainly stated, but I think that the man knew that the wrong choice would somehow cost him his life.  It was a very well written and chilling scene.

Josh Brolin also did a fantastic job.  At first, I didn’t even recognize him.  He had a big moustache and long greasy-looking hair covering half his face.  He looked so red-neck and scuzzy that he fit the part perfectly.  And the character was also very well written.  He is portrayed as a generally good man who felt like fate had dropped an opportunity in his lap that was too good to pass up.  He is trying to make a big score to give to his wife, played by Scottish actress, Kelly Macdonald.  The problem is that he is smart enough to have a few tricks up his sleeve, allowing him to think he can get away with his life and the money, but dumb enough to not realize he is way outmatched by just about everybody.

Interesting note:  Brolin was in a motorcycle accident a few days before filming was to begin.  He broke his collarbone, but he was so excited about being in a Coen Brothers’ film, he and his doctor lied about the extent of his injuries.  They allowed him to perform the role.

Another Interesting note:  Kelly Macdonald has a very strong Scottish accent and had to have a vocal coach teach her how to speak with the proper West Texas drawl.  Macdonald did a great job and was very believable in her part.

But going back to my earlier statement.  The plot of this movie could have taken place in any place, any time, and against any backdrop, and it would have been just as good.  The story was good enough to transcend a single location and setting.  It just happened to have been set in Western Texas.  So, would I call it a modern western?  I wouldn’t, but I guess other people would.

The only real disappointment of the film, in my opinion, was Tommy Lee Jones.  He just wasn’t a very good actor.  He was cast in the role for several obvious reasons, the first and foremost being that he didn’t really have to act.  Jones grew up in San Saba, Texas, not far from where the film takes place.  That took care of the accent.  Second, he looked the part well enough.  And third, he was a well-established name in Hollywood.  The problem is that he brought no passion to the performance.  I always felt like he was on the verge of falling asleep.  He made me want to fall asleep, as well.

Maybe I was missing the point of the character.  It is conceivable, especially considering the end of the film.  It was very cryptic.  The newly retired Sheriff Bell is sitting at the breakfast table with his wife explaining two dreams to her.  They both seem to be about getting old and dwelling on the death of his father.  Maybe that was part of the point.  He was just getting too old and sleepy to deal with the dangers and horrors that are part of being a law enforcement officer.  Unfortunately, if that was the case, it just translated on the screen as a one-note actor with no energy.  Someone like Clint Eastwood could have done the part better justice.

Now, as I sometimes do, I have to give a special honorable mention to actress Kathy Lamkin, who had a very small, but very memorable part.  She only had a minute or so of screen-time.  When Chigurh is searching for Moss, he checks in with Moss’s trailer-park office and tries to intimidate the manager to tell him where his intended victim works.  She politely refuses.  He calmly asks again, “Where does he work?”  She refuses again.  The tension in the scene is clearly rising.  He asks a third time.  “Where does he work?”  Her response is final, showing that she is not intimidated by the scary man.  “Did you not hear me?  We can’t give out no information.”  Priceless!  Even Chigurh is impressed and leaves without incident.

And finally, I have to mention the Coen Brothers, themselves.  As a team of directors, the actors and the critics alike have nothing but good things to say about them.  They consistently put out quality films like The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou?  Bardem revealed in an interview that it had always been his biggest dream to work with the Coen Brothers, so when he got the call to talk to them, he could not believe that his dream was actually going to come true.  And after filming was done, he had nothing but positive things to say about them and their style of directing.

This was a good film.  It was very violent, but I didn’t feel that any of it was gratuitous.  It was all actually very tastefully done, if that makes any sense.  It was all pretty integral to both character development and plot development.  The Coen Brothers really put together a well-made film with one of the creepiest bad guys I’ve seen in a long time.

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