Sunday, December 16, 2007

Review: No Country For Old Men

Though tightly-wound, the newest film from the Coen Brothers, No Country For Old Men, is magnificent.

The plot, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, is conventional: man finds cash, man takes cash, man is hunted by someone who wants the cash. It's the quality of filmmaking that sets this movie apart.

The Coens consistently produce works that play to the unique strengths of cinema, and "No Country" is no different. They frame shots that quickly explain what might take a novelist several paragraphs to describe. They insert subtle sound effects to amplify the narrative. They use music judiciously. They let scenes unfold unrushed, almost organically.

Though "No Country" features a couple of intense chase sequences, it's essentially a very cerebral suspense thriller. Several scenes are so incredibly tense that they're almost unbearable to watch. You've seen scenes like this before, just not as well-executed.

But in the end, it's the fact that the Coen Brothers are so good that leaves me wanting more. Their films are so well-planned, so rigidly mapped-out in advance, that they lack that mysterious spark of invention of a director like David Lynch or Martin Scorsese. If Quentin Tarantino's work feels like a cat falling from a tree and landing on its feet, the Coens remind you of a spider weaving a meticulous web.

For No Country, the Coens hire a cast of actors to play roles they've already proven they can play. Is anyone surprised that Texas native Tommy Lee Jones, (who won an Oscar playing a lawman in The Fugitive) shines as a Texas lawman? Or that Josh Brolin, who played a western hunter in Into The West, can play a western hunter? Or that Javier Bardem, who played a Mexican underworld figure in Collateral, can portray an ominous Mexican hitman? Barry Corbin playing a smart good 'ole boy? Present. Stephen Root as the boss? Accounted-for. The only notable casting oversight? They didn't hire Sam Elliott.

[An interesting casting note: Woody Harrelson, cast as a Texas hitman, is the son of real-life convicted Texas hitman, Charles Harrison, who died in prison for murdering a Texas judge. Ironically, McCarthy mentions that actual crime in his novel "No Country."]

Even with their "no surprises on set" approach, the Coens have crafted yet another wonderful film, rich with regional quirks, effective acting, beautiful shots, and a deep affection for both the history and possibilities of cinema.

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