By Matt Singer
[Photo: Josh Brolin in “No Country For Old Men,” Miramax Films, 2007]
I’ve seen over 80 new releases in the five months since I saw “No Country For Old Men” at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, including fine works by directors like Steven Soderbergh, Michael Winterbottom and Abel Ferrara. But none has stayed as fresh in my memory or, hell, just straight-up kicked as much ass as the Coen brothers’ “No Country For Old Men.” I’d say it’s their masterpiece, but they’ve already put out two or three other movies that might qualify for that title.
I saw the movie in the middle of one of the busiest weeks of my life, after a long day of interviews and live web shows. The movie started at 10 o’clock at night and I half-expected to fall asleep. Not only did that not happen, but when the movie ended I couldn’t sleep because I just wanted to keep talking about it. And though I wasn’t able to take notes like I normally would, it didn’t matter. After all that time, I can still instantly call to mind a whole fleet of moments and images and characters from the film.
Based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, “No Country” follows Llewelyn Moss (a shockingly rugged Josh Brolin), a hunter who stumbles on a botched drug deal and all the dead bodies and cold hard cash that goes with it. He absconds with the money and, before long, the men with claim to it have sent a hitman named Anton Chigurh (a shockingly creepy Javier Bardem) to retrieve it. Despite Brolin’s impressively gruff performance, in addition to solid supporting turns from Tommy Lee Jones as a too-old-for-this-shit sheriff and Woody Harrelson as another drug enforcer on the trail of Moss’ money, it is Bardem who will receive all the attention and, almost assuredly, all the Oscar nominations for the film somewhat rightfully so. Sporting an outlandishly bad pageboy haircut and a truly psychotic bug-eyed stare, he’s a great movie villain in the Hannibal Lector mold a vision of heinous, unbridled menace who nevertheless carries a perverse sort of allure thanks, in part, to the purity of his purpose and to his quirky, for lack of a better term, sense of humor.
Eventually, the film settles into a series of cat-and-mouse chases between Moss and Chigurh, but even more than the mercilessly suspenseful set pieces, what lingers is the Coens’ remarkable attention to visual details, the way a man struggling for his life on a linoleum floor would scuff it up with his boots, or the look of disturbed dust in a ventilation shaft. Reading those words on the page, they must sound totally mundane. But they demonstrate the Coens’ directorial precision: every choice is considered and every element, down the smallest one, has been measured and selected with care. Even the things that must have been happy accidents, like the ominous lightning in the distance of a shot as Moss runs for his life, work perfectly.
Curiously, when I asked colleagues at Cannes what they thought of the movie, they all said almost the same thing: “I think it’s their best film; I just don’t like them in general.” On one hand, that doesn’t surprise me. The film is good enough to easily transcend their fan base; though “No Country” features elements of past Coen brothers movies the grim humor in the face of tragedy, the hard-boiled dialogue, the postmodern twists on a well-worn genre (in this case the Western) but it is its own movie, and stands side-by-side with their greatest works (a title I’d ascribe to “Fargo” and “The Big Lebowski”) as an equal, if not an outright superior.
On the other hand, when it did it become cool to bash the brothers? Certainly their last few films haven’t been as good as their best works, but “No Country For Old Men” is a true return to form. If they keep putting out movies like this one, my peers are going to look awfully foolish. This has got to be the best movie of the year.
“No Country For Old Men” opens on November 9th.