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Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2007 11:55 pm

When evil lurks

CoensÂ’ latest will leave you wanting more

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Untitled Document Having put an indelible stamp on the American film scene with such diverse and challenging films as Raising Arizona, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski, brothers Joel and Ethan Coen now carry the burden of great expectations. As of late, many feel that the filmmakers have failed to realize the potential they exhibited in their earlier work. Garnering near-unanimous praise from critics when it premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the Coens’ latest feature, No Country for Old Men, seems to have an even greater burden to bear, because it is being touted as the film that will resurrect the brothers’ careers. That the Coens’ careers require any sort of resurrection is absurd; they’ve never wavered in presenting their quirky view of the world with a degree of ironic panache that’s often imitated but seldom equaled. Country presents a world out of joint, barren of any sort of moral code other than the most perverse and populated with a cast of vicious outlaws and outlandish archetypes. As an entry in the crime-film genre it’s an exemplary example, but I’m not sure it has anything profound to say about our society, or at least not anything we haven’t heard before. Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, the film begins as a simple tale of a drug deal gone wrong. Out hunting one day, Vietnam vet Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles across a scene of carnage that would make Sam Peckinpah blanch. Amid the burned out vehicles and dead bodies the hunter finds a massive shipment of cocaine and a satchel holding a little over $2 million. Leaving the drugs but grabbing the cash, Moss sets out with no other plan than to get as far away with the money as possible. He knows that someone will be in pursuit but has no way of knowing just how merciless that pursuer, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), is. Wielding a portable air-compressed spike used to kill cattle, this assassin displays little emotion, killing people left and right on a whim, often deciding his victim’s fate with the flip of a coin. On both of their trails is veteran Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a weary lawman who senses that he will always be a step behind on this case, despite his best efforts. All of the Coen trademarks are here, from characters with bad haircuts to elaborately choreographed sequences in which the camera captures scenes of horrific violence while gliding across complex expanses, with silence employed to great effect. Technically the film is top-notch, especially during a scene in which Moss is chased by a pit bull across a raging river and later when Chigurh tracks his query on the nighttime streets of a quiet Texas town. These moments and others are appropriately tense and help establish a sense of doom that the film carries with ease. The performances across the board are solid as well. Brolin continues his exceptional run (American Gangster, In the Valley of Elah), and Jones follows up the year’s best performance (also in Elah) with another solid turn. Woody Harrelson lends some welcome dark comic relief as the tracker set to bring in Chigurh, and Kelly Macdonald acquits herself handsomely as Moss’ worried wife. Bardem creates a portrait not simply of rabid psychosis but of a man on a quest, searching for some great knowledge of life that can only be witnessed in death. Watch him as he studies his victims before and after they die and you’ll note a childlike fascination in the way he observes them as they try to avoid death or meet it head on. This man is seeking answers to questions that will never be solved.
The film runs out of steam at the end, and at least two dialogue-heavy scenes undercut the tension that the have Coens created so masterfully. However, what is most disturbing about the movie is that it seems to be saying that evil exists in the world, there’s no true explanation for it, and sometimes good people are stricken down by it. Country is thematically in line with the Coens’ other films, and there may be some merit to this line of thinking, but I was left wanting a bit more when the end credits rolled.