Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Oct 07, 2007 5:17 am 
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Grim reaper in a Dutchboy bob

Cormac McCarthy's characteristically dry, laconic, and sometimes hilarious dialogue brightens the scenes of this superb and chilling thriller the Coen brothers have ably transferred to the screen with excellent help from Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Tones, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, and others, including a salty second layer of minor characters who look like they sprang straight out of the sandy soil of West Texas.

McCarthy, unmistakably one of America's greatest living writers of fiction, lives vividly in this, the Coens' first literary adaptation. Some of his best novels, notably Blood Meridian (called by Yale critic Harold Bloom one of the 20th century's greatest novels), are so apocalyptic, so embedded in their glorious poetic prose, as to be virtually unfilmable. All the Pretty Horses, from his Border Trilogy, has been filmed with some success (Matt Damon works in his role; Penelope Cruz doesn't). No Country for Old Men is late McCarthy. Post-apocalyptic, maybe. Jones's disenchanted, aging sheriff says, "When you don't hear sir and ma'am any more pretty much everything else goes." Llewelyn Moss (Brolin), a fairly innocent but opportunistic man, is deer hunting (he's not a good shot; he can't catch one out of a whole herd of them) when he finds a sprawl of wrecked vehicles and corpses, including Mexicans and a dog. There's a truckload of heroin in plastic packages and a briefcase containing two million plus in $100 bills. Moss takes the money and hightails it in his truck.

Naturally there are people who want the money back. Not nice people.

The man they hire to go after it is called Anton Chigurh. Expertly played by Javier Bardem, he's a villain--but with a clear-cut morality all his own--who's invincible and probably unforgettable. Chigurh is like the Grim Reaper: he can decide your fate with the flip of a coin; he reflects the biblical side of Cormac McCarthy, but in a terrible modern corruption. The crooks also hire another hit man, Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson)--a mistake, because Chigurh resents the duplication. He is the last word, the anti-Christ. No man may come after him.

Out in these open spaces of West Texas--El Paso, the Mexican border--where Cormac McCarthy's innocent, pure-hearted cowboys used to roam in earlier decades, things have changed beyond recognition. This is 1977. It's a few years since the end of the Vietnam war. Lots of drugs and lots of money floating around; you don't hear sir and ma'am any more.

The story turns into a chase, Chgurh after Llewelyn Moss, the sheriff coming after them. And then Carson Wells, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and doomed, pops in to follow.

People have been talking about Bardem's pageboy haircut. Yes, it's creepy. Bardem makes Chigurh both threatening and inscrutable. It seems he'd as soon kill you as look at you. He has a long rifle with a silencer and a high-pressure cattle-killer device with a tank that looks like something a person with emphysema would carry around. It kills instantly with a pop in the head. He also uses it to shoot out door locks.

The film is more tense and suspenseful in the first half or so than in the grimly determined finale (all true to the book, if with a few details cut). By that time a lot of people have been killed and some wounded. This has some elements of the Coen's Fargo and Blood Simple (the latter introduced in an earlier NYFF) and thus with their most powerful work. But No Country is an economical and faithful literary adaptation. Some Coen movies have been thin and frivolous lately. This is emphatically not, sure and riveting from the first few shots. Richard Deakins' photography, making much appropriate use of wide-angle lenses, is superb. Their distinguished source seems to have kept the Coens honest and serious (except for the dry humor built into McCarthy's talk). Unquestionably this will wind up being one of the best American films of the year. It's tight and vivid and suspenseful. It's great stuff. The images sing and stun. There's no distracting music, only the beauty and terror of real sounds.

Present for the Nyff press screening Q&A (moderator Lisa Schwartzbaum): Brolin, Jones, Macdonald, Bardem, and the brothers Coen, Ethan and Joel.

┬ęChris Knipp. Blog:

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