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'No Country for Old Men'

Flip of the Coens lands on the good side.

Steve Burgess 16 Nov

Steve Burgess reviews films for The Tyee every other Friday.

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Tommy Lee Jones: 'Can't stop what's coming.'

No Country for Old Men opened last week -- forgive the late review. But it was either this or check out the computer-generated monstrosities of this week's new release Beowulf, and wouldn't everyone be more jolly if I wasn't having one of my moods?

The latest film from brothers Joel and Ethan Coen is hardly a fountain of frolic. What it is, arguably, is the movie of the year and thus worthy of any belated congratulation it can get. No Country for Old Men also certifies James Brolin's son Josh as a man on fire, leading a great ensemble cast here while simultaneously stealing scenes as a creepo cop in American Gangster. The apple fell a long ways from the tree in that family, praise Jesus.

Brolin the Younger plays Llewelyn Moss, a Vietnam vet who lives in a trailer with a swell wife (Kelly McDonald) circa 1980. One day he's tracking a wounded deer when he comes upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone very haywire. Soon he is in possession of a suitcase with mucho dinero. This will earn him the unwanted attentions of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a professional killer whose evident life of suffering thanks to the world's worst haircut is not enough to make him sympathetic. We've already met Chigurh by this time. We know it's not something you want to do on purpose.

The dark side

Tommy Lee Jones is the local marshal who must figure out what's going on before it goes down. Jones must be a tremendous embarrassment to his Hollywood peers -- he never got the memo about avoiding the natural aging process. As a result he gets to play actual human beings like Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a weary old coot who knows the sad truth spoken by another broken-down lawman: "You can't stop what's coming."

Woody Harrelson shows up in a smaller role as a bounty hunter, and the Coens continue their great tradition of including wonderful cameos from rank-and-file performers. My favourite here is one Margaret Bowman* as a motel manager personally offended when a single guest wants a room with two double beds.

Based on a book by Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men is definitely Dark Coens. Some prefer Funny Coens, i.e. Big Lebowski and Raising Arizona. Many more champion Fargo as the perfect Prius Coens, a hybrid of light and dark. I favour Blood Simple and Miller's Crossing, which means No Country for Old Men is my kind of Coens. Be warned, though -- this is a movie that is determined to defy your secret cinematic desires.

They're back!

It does this only after allowing you to gorge on the best this genre can offer, the genre in question being gritty, desperate, desert tales of terrible deeds, bad men, and grim pursuers -- the Coen brothers genre. Certain scenes and conversations seem reminiscent of Fargo, yet without the broad mockery. The Coens appear to like their Texans more than the Minnesota crowd.

While I will offer no spoilers, fans may find different aspects of the ending legitimately frustrating. At least one key scene left me (and if online message boards are indicative, many others) utterly mystified. One of the twists included here has long been on my Top Five All-Time Worst Twist List, and it's in the top two. Yet here the development is not played out in quite the usual way. I came away thinking that, this time, it worked. Besides, like it or not the Coens are being faithful to McCarthy's novel, which did not offer a vision of life as a neat and tidy two-hour-long package.

No Country for Old Men is hardly a celebration. But for Coen fans disaffected by the likes of Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers, or The Man Who Wasn't There, this movie will be cause for popcorn with a champagne chaser. The brothers are back.

*The name of the actor references in this paragraph was corrected on Nov. 20, 2007.

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