Tuesday, January 29, 2008

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007)…....10/10

The Coen brothers offer up an utterly flawless display of craft, pacing, and mood. NO COUNTRY dwells in a similar moral territory to Allen’s MATCH POINT (2005), in that it exists in a world that operates firstly on chance and secondly on causality. It is a world in which “justice” is a lofty imposition of man without gravity. Also like MATCH POINT, the only character explicitly aware of the tenets of chance is a man with a gun. The man is Anton Chigur (Bardem), a grim and soulless specter of heedless violence, who is after a rather unfortunately fortuitous but resilient man named Llewelyn Moss (Brolin). Moss, a hunter from the Rio Grande, stumbles upon what looks like a slaughter, finding a stash of heroin and more than $2 million in cash. He takes the money, and sets the next two hours of atmosphere and tension in motion; a cat and mouse game between him and Chigur, only it’s more like a panther and mouse game. The back and forth of the film is punctuated by scenes involving the investigating Sheriff , Ed Tom Bell (Jones). He’s an oldtimer ready to be set out to pasture, and the barbarism of this ensuing match is proof enough to him, even though he deals merely in the aftermaths of its passing. "I feel overmatched" he explains. "I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. You can say it's my job to fight it, but I don't know what it is anymore. More than that, I don't want to know." Ed Tom Bell sees the world as a place thats grown inexorably harsh under his watch, but an old friend evens out the keel for him. "Whatcha got ain't nothin new. This country's hard on people, you can't stop what's coming" relating a rather cruel story of many years past.

The preponderance of "what's coming" is a constant hanging question in NO COUNTRY, and is the crux of the films existential framework. Or rather, its that you "can't see what's comin' that propels the story, despite its rather fatalistic certainty. "Watcha doin?" a flirtatious woman asks Llewelyn poolside, just before his death. "Waitin for what's comin" he says back with a smirk and a lean. "You never see it" she says rather plainly. Or even earlier, Bell's deputy, at the sight of the drug deal slaughter says, "This sure is a mess, aint it?" "If it aint, it'll do till the mess gets here" Bell replies with a mix of nonchalance and concern.

The pacing is moderate and perfect, flowing no faster than the dust blown in the Texas breeze, but all the more gripping for it. The pacing roots NO COUNTRY on a scale we can appreciate without having to suspend our disbelief too far. Each character is so immediately rich and secretly complex, playing just beneath an archetype. The three leads (Jones, Bardem, Brolin) stand as a kind of attitudinal or moral ‘past, present, and future’ vehicle, which works as brilliantly as the trinity of moralities in Allen’s recent murder drama CASANDRA’S DREAM. In that sense the story is quite existential, with a manner that says as much in its measured language as it does in its likewise unfolding, recalling Antonioni’s masterwork THE PASSENGER (1975).

The greatest match that Chigur meets is neither Llewelyn, nor the hired contract killer Carson Wells (Harrelson), but little Carla Jean Moss, Llewelyn's wife. She challenges him in a manner no one else had through out the film because she refuses his entire ideological model, and does so without bullets or braun. "Call it [the coin toss]. Its the best I can do." In refusing to call the coin toss on which her life was staked, saying to him "That coin 'aint got no say. It's just you" she rattles Chigur's idea that we are fixed in our design and convictions or that the best any of us can do in this desolate world is weigh our lives against something vastly arbitrary. She says like so many others, "You don't have to do this." What she gets across more than others however, at least to the audience, is that we needn't slave ourselves to ideologies and refuse to break the chains simply because of our seeming design. But as Chigur checks his boots on the way out of her mother's house, its clear he didn't absorb her meaning. He's the heedless soulless future...or is he past, present, and future. Chigur's curious nature reminds me of a despairing passage from the novel THE SORROW OF WAR by Bao Ninh. "Like the dead, one felt no fear, no enthusiasm, no joy, no sadness, no feelings for anything. No concerns and no hopes....and no regard for the clever or the stupid, the brave or the cowardly, friend or foe, life or death, happiness or sadness. It was all the same; it amounted to nothing."

The film, sparse but viciously taut, holds onto no one, and the body count rolls off the celluloid like so much water from a rain-beaten windshield, not stopping to sympathize, moralize, or heighten their passing. In fact, several significant deaths occur off-screen. This is a world that believes in no cannon of pure justice and understands that causality is but a pretense for the truth of chance, and NO COUNTRY refuses to satiate an audience with expectations of how a story should unfold.

Despite the preceding parade of ruthlessness, the final words of the film have an almost hopeful tinge to them. In the scene Tom Bell, now retired but just as amiss in respite as he was in the worlds violence, relates a dream to his wife, concerning him and his father. "When he [his father] rode past, I seen he was carrying fire in a horn the way people used to do and I, I could see the horn from the light inside of it, about the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was going on ahead, and he was fixing to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold... And I knew that whenever I got there he'd be there... Then I woke up." One might read into this sentiment that for every expanse of darkness or hazard in this forsaken world, there will be a soul prepared to bring a light into it. It suggests that both eventualities are inevitable.

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