When you see No Country for Old Men, leave your preconceptions at home.
But bring your Alfred Hitchcock lenses. They're useful.
The viewer of No Country for Old Men has to fight through a potentially disconcerting ending, two pivotal violent scenes that aren't shown and a grab-bag of literary dialogue.
Ordinary viewing won't suffice. One needs extraordinary awareness to navigate the pitfalls and cul de sacs that the Coen Brothers have imposed on their material.
No Country for Old Men is a dazzling time-bomb of a movie. It is an engrossing, brutal, nerve-wracking moral tale. Like several other recent films, it's one-of-a-kind, but draws on potent resources.
And, it stays with you like a beautiful bruise well after you've left the theater. The Coen Brothers -- Joel and Ethan -- are back at the top of their game.
No Country for Old Men, adapted by the Coens, from a novel by Cormac McCarthy, is set in West Texas in 1980. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) out hunting, comes across the remains of a drug deal gone awry in the open countryside, with bodies all over the place.
He discovers a case full of $2 million in cash and absconds with it. He is pursued by two men. One is an aging lawman, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). The other is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a vicious psychotic who kills almost all of the people he encounters.
As Llewelyn and Anton embark on a violent battle of wits, Ed Tom follows, surveying the damage in their wake. It takes its toll on him.
The cast is engaging and provocative. Josh Brolin portrays the resourceful man on the run. We root for him as the relentless, soulless killer pursues him.
Javier Bardem gives a chilling performance as Anton Chigurh with his hypnotic, deadfish eyes and shuffling gait. Anton Chigurh is the most compelling villain since Hannibal Lector.
Tommy Lee Jones continues his streak of great, human characterizations as the lawman who is trying to hold his life together as the modern world careens out of control.
Sheriff Bell blurts out, "I'm overmatched." He finds himself trapped in a world of drugs and violence, where basic civility is dead. The wild west is now mad. It is no place for old cowboys.
Scottish actress Kelly McDonald, who was wonderful as the title character in the HBO movie The Girl in the Cafe, is appealing as Llewelyn's vulnerable wife, who finds out that logic is irrelevant.
The rest of the cast is studded with effective performances, especially Gene Jones as the owner of an isolated gas station. Jones has a fateful meeting with Anton.
In No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers have returned to the universe of Fargo (1996) -- funny, stark, where the land and environment are powerful characters. It's a world of accidental meetings that turn deadly. Life is decided by a flip of a coin. People have warped sensibilities.
The quirkiness of the Coens is kept in perspective in No Country for Old Men by the spacious west. It didn't work in The Ladykillers (2004) and Intolerable Cruelty (2003), where it was leaden. Now it's back in the wide open spaces.
The Coens's masterly cinematographer Roger Deakins captures a world that is both bleak and earthy. Deakins should win the Oscar. He also shot The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Valley of Elah, both released this year.
Most of No Country for Old Men is fraught with haphazard violence and tension. Some of the suspenseful sequences are excruciating. The master Hitchcock would be proud.
No Country for Old Men builds to a potential tornado, then turns into a tumbleweed. The abrupt ending initially is very unsatisfying. But the Coens want it that way. Film and life don't work out the way we want them to. The Coens want us to think about it.
I very much admire Alfred Hitchcock, who was able to get audiences to participate, and then he would manipulate them, mislead them, fool them.
No Country for Old Men is like the Coens taking Hitch out into the west. Their film is full of Hitchcockian touches and themes. Major scenes occur in a motel reminiscent of the Bates Motel. There are scenes in a hotel on the stairs and in a room that whisper Hitch. A character looks on the soles of his shoes for traces of blood. Llewelyn Moss -- shades of Marion Crane. Is the money a red herring? Birds seem symbolic in both movies.
The ending of No Country for Old Men may remind one of the end of Psycho, where after the frenzy of violence, we had a sheriff ruminating. That originally was disconcerting to audiences in 1960. Calm after the storm. We want the storm.
No Country for Old Men withholds the rain. But there is plenty of disturbing thunder and dangerous lightning.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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