FILM REVIEW: NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

By Michael Phillips

Tribune Movie Critic

3-1/2 stars

As pure craftsmanship, "No Country for Old Men" is as good as we've ever gotten from Joel and Ethan Coen. Only "Fargo" is more satisfying (it's also a comedy, which this one isn't), certainly among the brothers' pictures driven by the evil that men do and all that can go wrong under the precepts of Murphy's law.

It took me two viewings of the film, set in the early 1980s along the West Texas/Mexico border, to appreciate it fully for what it is, a viciously effective exercise in suspense, and worry less about what it isn't (important, "meaningful," a work of moral gravity). It helps to see "No Country for Old Men" with the right crowd. At its Cannes film festival premiere last May, audiences were so eager to embrace every little irony and black-hearted flourish, it turned into a yukfest. To be sure, the Coens love a good sick laugh, and they love their murderous sociopaths. But it has been a long time, and many films, since they worked out the relationship between the two so well.

Just how murderous is this tale's particular sociopath, cooked up by novelist Cormac McCarthy? Spiritual kin to the icy killer portrayed by Peter Stormare in "Fargo," the unstoppable force of nature here is named Anton Chigurh (the name, pronounced "Sh-gurr," according to McCarthy, comes from nowhere and means nothing). He kills using a slaughterhouse stun-gun, also known as a captive bolt pistol. It's the most unwieldy instrument of death one can imagine. Javier Bardem, who memorably inhabits Chigurh, makes the killing device an extension of his own tetched psyche. No less strange is the character's Dutch boy haircut, weighing down on its owner like a bad joke.

We're back in the geographical vicinity of "Blood Simple," the 1985 Texas noir that put the Coens on the map. Adapting McCarthy's 2005 novel, the script begins with the Tommy Lee Jones character, our lifeline in a sea of troubles, speaking in voice-over about his job as county sheriff, the changing times, the gathering storm clouds. A dozen or so quiet shots, edited by the Coens (under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes) so as to keep us slightly on edge, establish the border country - photographed with exquisite rightness of tone by Roger Deakins - as an implacable character unto itself.

The title comes from a line in the Yeats poem "Sailing to Byzantium," and the story pits a good man, the sheriff, against a very bad one, Chigurh. He is the hired gun bent on retrieving $2.4 million in drug money. The third point in the triangle is Llewelyn Moss, a largely silent but crucial character played by Josh Brolin, who at this point in his career has gotten interesting enough to do very little on screen and make it stick.

Moss is a working-class Vietnam veteran living in a trailer park with his wife (Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald, sharp as a tack and spot-on with the West Texas dialect). Out antelope hunting one day, Moss spies the aftermath of a drug deal gone haywire, evidenced by the corpses and the pickup full of drugs and the suitcase with the money. "Uh-huh," he says, seeing the money for the first time, betraying nothing with his voice or his face.

The rest of the story is a chase film and a serial killer movie in one. Director Joel Coen (Ethan generally handles the writing chores) makes the most of such set pieces as Moss being pursued by an attack dog across a river - a lovely crane shot swoops the camera up over the waterway, revealing the precise distance between Moss and his pursuer - leading to a confrontation on the other side. It's a marvel of a suspense sequence.

The film splits its focus among Bell, Moss and an increasingly demonic Chigurh. Woody Harrelson shows up as another hit man sent to collect the money Moss has squirreled away. He may be in the same line of work as Chigurh, but he is not the same type of remorseless moralist. (Some of the writing in both novel and screenplay, having to do with Chigurh's "code of ethics," gets a bit fancy.) Bardem's character likes to flip coins when deciding his latest unfortunate acquaintance's fate, a trait that was more frightening and less grotesquely comical in the book. Yet with his masklike smile, Bardem is as spectral as Jones' weary lawman is down-to-earth.

Shooting in New Mexico and Texas, cinematographer Deakins lights the mountainous desert landscapes like a master. You forget right away that the movies have visited these parts of the country many times before, though rarely as vividly. (There'll be hell to pay if Deakins doesn't pick up an Oscar for this film, or for "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.") Carter Burwell's score is minimalist in the extreme; considering the surfeit of music he composed for another new offbeat crime story, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," it comes out about even.

If there's a small hole in the middle of "No Country for Old Men," it's where the cumulative cost of all the exotic slaughter of drug runners and innocent bystanders comes into play. The Coens may well be interested in the dramatic consequences of the violence. One gets the feeling, though, that they're more interested in the precise mechanics and capabilities of the stun gun. There are some missteps, a few too many strokes of caricature (Moss' cranky, cancer-ridden mother-in-law belongs to a different picture). A key late scene between Jones and Barry Corbin doesn't work, partly because the audience isn't sure who Corbin's character is. But on its own terms the script is a model of selectivity. We learn less about the sheriff's life, especially his bruising experience in World War II, than the novel taught us, for instance, yet the movie is leaner as a result. The Coens also drop a subplot involving scenes between Moss and a teenage hitchhiker - again, for the better.

Is the movie saying anything about anything? In the end, I'm with Walter Kirn, who in his review of McCarthy's book for The New York Times called it "sinister high hokum." But nothing precludes a beautifully made genre exercise from being made out of such stuff.

"No Country for Old Men"

Directed and adapted by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy; photographed by Roger Deakins; edited by Roderick Jaynes; music by Carter Burwell; production design by Jess Gonchor; produced by Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. A Miramax Films and Paramount Vantage release; opens Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema, AMC River East 21 and Century Evanston. Running time: 2:02. MPAA rating: R (strong graphic violence and some language).

Ed Tom Bell - Tommy Lee Jones

Anton Chigurh - Javier Bardem

Llewelyn Moss - Josh Brolin

Carson Wells - Woody Harrelson

Carla Jean Moss - Kelly Macdonald


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