No Country For Old Men, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel and the latest collaboration by the Coen brothers, is a messy film that doesn’t shy away from the nasty, bitter subject matter that it undertakes. You witness the first murder, a vicious and heinous event, in the first four minutes. The second arrives within the first five. The title of the movie explains the premise, though a better description for the movie might be “no movie for weak stomach”.
The year is 1980. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is a man born to the west Texas way of life. It’s a harsh, sparse land where people don’t really live so much as survive. One day, while out hunting in the desert, Moss comes across a drug deal gone bad. His tracking skills lead him to the satchel of money from the deal, a $2 million bundle of cash that’s too much for a resourceful live-by-the-seat-of-his-paycheck welder to walk away from, no matter how dangerous.
What Moss doesn’t realize is that the drug trade along the southern border is growing more and more perilous and the men involved have begun to stretch the term criminally insane to the breaking point. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is such a man, and his dedication to finding the money and the man who made off with it is matched only by his warped sense of psychotic criminal morality.
The gory trail and small army of dead bodies that the two leave behind is more than Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) can comprehend. His is the story that begins and ends, and occasionally punctuates the movie. It’s also the only part of the story that offers something more than raw greed and violence, but it tends to fall by the wayside in favor of watching Moss and Chigurh play an increasingly bloody game of cat and mouse.
Therein lays the movie’s biggest flaw: its fascination with and fixation on violence. The point of the movie is to demonstrate how illogically brutal the world can become by showing it through the eyes of a law officer who doesn’t know what to do with all the meaningless violence. After awhile it starts to feel like the audience is the one being brutalized. The movie spends more time on Chigurh and Moss shooting at each other and picking buckshot out of their wounds than it does on Bell’s considerations.
Sure, it’s intriguing to watch the characters plumb the depths of human desperation and depravity while exploring the various ways an air pressure cylinder gun can be used to commit the perfect murder, but it takes up so much of the movie that it walks a fine line with being gratuitous. In the end the Coens come full circle to focus on the characters and the ultimate consequences of their choices. The violence gives way to an equally brutal kind of life poetry, the type of prose expected from a Cormac McCarthy novel.
As always, the Coens have assembled a top notch cast, but the real gem in the film is Spanish actor Javier Bardem. I’ve enjoyed Bardem’s work for years, most especially in Mar Adentro where he plays a quadriplegic man fighting for the right to end his own life. Since most of his films are Spanish, American audiences haven’t really had a chance to see Bardem’s genius, what with our revulsion to reading subtitles. It’s nice to see him getting some well-deserved attention stateside, especially in such an intriguing role as Chigurh.
With No Country For Old Men the Coens have outdone themselves in the cinematography department, somehow managing to turn the barren west Texas wilderness and its unique culture into a character as much a part of the movies as Moss, Chigurh and Bell. Best of all they haven’t lost their dry sense of dark humor, the only relief offered in the dark storyline. I’m not sure this is the best movie the Coen’s have made, but it’s certainly not the worst.
With the exception of all those moneymaking sequels, it was a slow year for movies. I suspect that's why something like Juno somehow got all the way to Best Picture category at the Oscars. While quality filmmaking is still the focus for some people in the movie industry, it’s a movie’s moneymaking ability that determines its success in the eyes of the people who sign the checks.
This DVD has all the earmarks of a package pulled together by those folks with their eye on the dollar sign. The design and special features feel rushed, sort of like they were thrown together at the last second in an effort to take advantage of the movie’s Oscar nomination. No Country For Old Men is the sort of movie that no one really paid attention to until it was nominated and is one that most will forget after the Oscar buzz has worn off. Execs are striking while the iron is hot and the result is a product that’s half baked.
There is precious little more than 30 minutes worth of extras, divided up over three features. It’s mostly talking heads and congratulatory back patting for the Coen’s with very little exploration of the movie or the book that inspired it.
“The Making of No Country For Old Men” is by far the longest of the three, taking you from the adaptation to finished product in just over twenty minutes. As the first billed bonus item it certainly sets the stage for what you hope will be more exciting and in-depth items. Then comes the disappointment.
Item two, “Working With The Coens” explores just how wonderful the “two-headed director” is. Everyone has a good word and at the end of the six minutes of oo-ing and ah-ing you kind of wish you could be a part of such an uplifting work experience. But the time passes quickly and at the end it really doesn’t contribute much to your appreciation of the film.
Last and certainly least is “Diary of a Country Sheriff”. It takes a short five minute look at the character who is supposed to be at the heart of the story, Sheriff Bell and the characters involved in his investigation. I consider it a primer or an abstract for what should be at least a couple hours worth of exploration into the movie and its inhabitants.
There are no commentaries and nothing on Cormac McCarthy. It’s a bare bones DVD meant to capitalize on the here and now. Hopefully someday a more complete package will be released, but until then this “rent only” deal is best you’re going to get. Do yourself a favor and get out to see it in a theater while you still can.