Saturday, December 01, 2007

No Country for Old Men (2007) review


'I b'want my mony ba-aaack!' blared the twenty-something social retards behind me as the lights went up after the poignant ending of the Coen brothers' newest masterpiece. 'Who's got my money?!' croaked another. Why, Kerasotes theaters, Miramax, Paramount, and the Coen brothers do, you dumb assholes. 'No Country for Old Men,' based on the excellent 2003 novel (published 2005) by Cormack McCarthy is an incredible period piece that takes-place in a small town in the Southwest of Texas in 1980, but it could have been a story set anywhere, at any time. Most Americans thought correctly that this film is a real potboiler--a crime movie, a suspense thriller--but it really is that and so much more.

Because it's so much more, the ending is going to stun and upset many viewers, which was worth the price-of-admission alone for this writer. It's also going to anger many of you because you aren't paying any attention to what it's really saying: that there's no escaping fate once you become involved in a spiraling cycle-of-violence, and that only lady luck will allow you a way out. The Cormack McCarthy Society's website has an excerpt from publisher Alfred A. Knopf's original press release for the book from 2005:
Set along a bloody frontier in our own time, this is Cormac McCarthy’s first novel since Cities of the Plain completed his acclaimed, bestselling Border Trilogy.

Llewelyn Moss, hunting antelope near the Rio Grande, instead finds men shot dead, a load of heroin, and over two million in cash. Packing the money out, he knows, will change everything. But only after two more men are murdered does a victim’s burning car lead Sheriff Bell to the carnage out in the desert, and he soon realizes that Moss and his young wife are in desperate need of protection. One party in the failed transaction hires an ex-Special Forces officer to defend his interests against a mesmerizing freelancer, while on either side are men accustomed to spectacular violence and mayhem. The pursuit stretches along and across the border, each participant seemingly determined to answer what one asks another: How does a man decide in what order to abandon his life?

A harrowing story of a war society wages on itself, an enduring meditation on the ties of love and blood and duty that inform lives and shape destinies, and a novel of extraordinary resonance and power.

And so, the film begins with a few murders by Mexican hit man, Anton Chigurh, played by the show- stealing Spanish actor, Javier Bardem who already has an incredible acting career, but will cement it thanks to this shocking performance of a 'man' who kills for almost any reason at all. Offending his philosophy and principles is literally tempting fate itself. The only other hired killer that I can recall in cinema like him is 'Angel Eyes' (played just as well by the legendary Lee Van Cleef) in Sergio Leone's 'The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,' a killer who has his own set-of-rules and principles ('I always see a job through.'). Chigurh isn't really meant to be a representation of a human being. Ultimately, he's more of a force, a reminder of where America has been. He is fate, and he is death. As Sheriff Bell says, 'He's a ghost,' a ghost from the past. There is no reasoning with him once he's decided that it's your time, but he makes random exceptions by letting some of his victims call on a coin-toss. Only one of them wins the call, and not-so-ironically, he's an old man. An old woman is also spared. It's as if the Indian wars never ended along the American-Mexican border...

Chigurh's terrifying M.O. is to murder his sometimes random victims with the air-gun used to fire a steel-rod through-the-skull of cattle, so he's a very menacing sight carrying a tank with a hose-and-gun attachment, alternating with a silencer-equipped shotgun. Enter Llewelyn Moss, played perfectly by Josh Brolin who does a great job portraying the dunderheaded trailer-trash redneck who's definitely had some poor male role-models in his past. Moss is out hunting those antelope on the unluckiest day of his short life when he sees the aftermath of devastating shootout between two-groups of Mexican heroin-smugglers (one side who most certainly represent elements of the Mexican Mafia Family) through his binoculars. His story is almost a parody of the great American folk song, 'Home on the Range.'

The macho redneck Llewelyn (he was in Nam, too) gets closer to the kill-site and finds several keys of brown heroin (a favorite cash-staple of the Mafia Family) and a case filled with $2 million American. He also discovers one of the Mexican bandits alive, who begs him for 'Agua, por favor.' He doesn't have any, but as he tells his trailer-trash wife, 'I'm going to do something stupid,' and goes back to bring the dying man some water. This is a movie about characters, character itself, the inescapable fate that we're all prone to, and the wisdom of a cautious and peaceful existence. It's also about how violence is cyclical and eternal, that it is to be avoided at almost any cost, and that it has no real meaning in-the-end. As the tag-line states, 'There Are No Clean Getaways.' There aren't any from our own history as a nation either, and fate becomes predetermined by our past actions. This is a very difficult concept for most Americans to swallow, we tend to believe that we control our fates 100%--McCarthy's book and the Coen brothers' interpretation of it turn this sacred national conceit on-its-head.

Eventually, the forces of law and order begin to notice all the killings in the person of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (another fine performance by the great Tommy Lee Jones), who has told all his peers that he's retiring soon. It isn't hard to understand why: throughout the film we get anecdotes of his great-grandfather who was a lawman, slaughtered by Mexican desperadoes in 1909 along the border, and the death of his father in his forties in a similar situation. Bell doesn't want his life to end that way. Who would? Only a fool who thinks he's invincible, as most young men tend to, and this is why we get some comments from Bell about his early-days as a 25-year-old Sheriff. He no-longer feels invincible at all. And that's where the title really resonates with meaning: in our old age, we're supposed to have learned something, and Sheriff Bell is the man who finally has. America is still a young, violent nation that hasn't grown-up, and is still fighting the inevitable. For these same reasons, the audience I watched this film with rejected the Bell character and the ending, which was predictable here in dumbo Middle America Indiana.

Bell's looked back at his family's experiences with violence and our ongoing social war, and he's had enough of it all. It's likely he knows that a whole lot of bad laws have raised-the-stakes and created a lot of the violence he's witnessed throughout his time as a Sheriff. Who would know this better? For many audiences expecting that easy-fix where the lawman comes in and 'fixes' everything once-and-for-all, this is unacceptable, yet it's the cold, hard truth of the matter. 'Good' and the law do not always prevail, and iniquity and injustice are eternal. Enter the 'other-side' of the heroin-transaction: the corrupt suits in an upscale El Paso business suite who hire fix-it man Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson in a wonderfully subdued & poignant performance) to go get the money from Llewelyn Moss. He doesn't fare any better than all the other victims of Chigurh, and his time as a crooked bounty hunter is over. Many innocents die along-the-way, including Moss's wife and mother-in-law.

Like Chigurh, Wells locates Moss very quickly, yet Moss continues to believe that he can somehow escape the whole mess with the money, and that his life can remain the same. You get the idea that both Wells and Chigurh have both done the same thing that Moss has, as they know his every move so well. What we're watching in Moss is the death of the American ideal of the 'rugged individual,' and the stupidity of machismo--that he can 'make things right,' and that he can 'win.' He refuses to admit to himself that he's in a game where there is no victory. It's hard to imagine a more timely message while our troops are bogged-down in war that is not only unwinnable, but the creation of a mindless Texan-wannabe, a phony cowboy who appealed to the same demographic that Moss hails from.

Well-past halfway into the film, we're led to believe the story is about Moss. Just as Hitchcock did in 'Psycho,' we're deprived of this idea upon Sheriff Bell's discovery of Moss's body at a sleazy motel crime scene. The story itself is about the themes: of fate, the decisions that determine the fate of individuals, and the aftermath. History, then, must play its role in all of this, as told in the family anecdotes by Sheriff Bell. That aftermath of these kind of stories frequently means a bloody death. Through the Sheriff's subplot and that of the Harrelson character, we learn that both men understand Chigurh, what he represents, and who and what he is, and they understand it very well. This is the reason why they're the first characters to display fear over Chigurh, and we have to assume they've seen his handiwork before. Walking away from trouble is usually the best path when it comes to people like Chigurh, but when it's your time, it's your time. In Cormack McCarthy's and the Coen brothers' version of our universe (the real one), there are no answers or meaning to most of the mayhem. It simply is.