Joel and Ethan Coen have proven themselves skilled at three types of films over the years: thrillers (“Fargo”), comedies (“The Big Lebowski”), and just plain weird (“Barber”). Often the lines between the three are blurred: “The Big Lebowski” has a noirish detective story holding together the jokes, while “Fargo” definitely has points where you laugh.
The Coens had gone for years without making an inferior film, until 2003’s “Intolerable Cruelty” showed signs of strain, while the next year’s “The Ladykillers” was their first outright misfire. Yet just when you thought they might be losing it, they’ve come back strong — Oscar-winning strong — with their latest, “No Country For Old Men,” an adaptation of an extremely hard-boiled Cormac McCarthy novel.
Interestingly, “No Country” is the most straightforward thriller they’re done since their very first film, “Blood Simple.” It may even be their straightest, least ironic film period, and both the box office and the Academy Awards seem to validate that impression. The film clearly and finally represents the mainstream success that has long eluded the Coens.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Director||Ethan and Joel Coen|
|Run Time||122 minutes|
Longtime fans, fear not: This is no sell-out. There is still plenty of what the Coens do best — quirky characters, the striking cinematography of Roger Deakins, inspired soundtrack choices, quotable dialogue, and a love of local color and detail, not to mention a deliberately obtuse ending of the kind not seen since “Barton Fink”.
The Coens work with a classic thriller set-up that any movie fan will recognize from great movies like Louis Malle’s “Atlantic City” or Sam Raimi’s “A Simple Plan”: guy finds bag full of money; despite a bad feeling, guy takes money; money turns out to belong to drug dealers, and they want it back; brutal consequences result.
I’ve read reviews of this film that give away so many spoilers I couldn’t believe it; this is a thriller, and I will leave it to you to enjoy it as it unspools. Just let me tell you the set-up: Josh Brolin, who is popping up on screen all over these days in minor roles (“Planet Terror,” “In The Valley Of Elah”), plays a good ol’ boy Texan, complete with drooping mustache and cowboy hat, who goes out for a little hunting and stumbles across a bunch of cars and bodies in the desert. Warily inspecting the scene, he finds the aforementioned bag full of money and decides to claim it for his own.
But he leaves a trail, and the dealers hire a psychotic professional hit man (Javier Bardem) to locate who took their cash. Also in close pursuit is the local sheriff, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who can do weathered Texas lawman roles in his sleep. Brolin’s cowboy figures out he’s in some pretty serious trouble, and flees his trailer home, sending his wife (Kelly McDonald) one way while he travels another.
Bardem’s assassin stays right on his trail, absolutely unshakable and unstoppable. Bardem plays his character with a terrifying calm, murdering (with a cattle-killing bolt-gun) without a flinch or qualm. He’s a psychotic who can walk into a service station and threaten the owner just for the hell of it, leaving his fate to a coin toss. “This coin, it’s been traveling for 22 years, and now it’s here,” he purrs with implied menace, and the Coens milk such scenes for maximum tension.
Off-setting his menace is the floppy haircut he sports, which makes him seem deceptively foolish. (Apparently the Coens found the look in a photo-book Jones gave them of 1970s bordellos on the Mexican border.) In his pursuit of Brolin, he’s more akin to the Terminator than a human, and Bardem has described how he played the character less as a real person than as an incarnation of fate, bad karma that sticks to you like superglue.
Jones’ sheriff is laid-back and unflappable, dispensing down-home wisdom rather like Frances McDormand’s small-town cop in “Fargo.” But “No Country” is saying that times have become harder for people like him; the sheriff is shocked by the brutality he witnesses. “Sometimes I laugh myself,” he says ruefully. ” There ain’t nothing else I can do.”
This line will echo in your heads when the ending credits roll. “No Country” is a damn fine film, but its ending is anything but. There’s a good place to fade slightly earlier in the last reel, but the Coens tack on a coda that is, to be charitable, less than satisfying. They stayed true to the novel in doing this, but it deflates the genre expectations they have adhered to so well for most of the film. It’s a pensive note to close on, but one that isn’t obvious. Still, even this can’t spoil the perfect duel of hunter and hunted that got you there.
In “Fargo,” order is restored, and murder remains an aberration while small-town values prevail; 10 years on in “No Country” it seems everything is going to hell on the fast track. And sometimes, the film says, you can’t stop what’s coming.