Startling modern western from Coens
No Country For Old Men Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald; Dir: Joel and Ethan Coen; Cert: 15; 2 hrs 2mIn many ways this latest entry in the diverse Coen brothers canon is a simple contemporary western.
No Country For Old Men Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald; Dir: Joel and Ethan Coen; Cert: 15; 2 hrs 2m
In many ways this latest entry in the diverse Coen brothers canon is a simple contemporary western. There's gunfights, stolen money, pursuit across the dusty Texan desert, even a dogged local sheriff and people on horse back wearing Stetsons. If the story is simple, then the characterisation is detailed and complex - rich and highly rewarding.
The audience is drawn into this harsh, humid world where everything is bleached by the sun and for the most part the only sound you hear is the incessant buzz of flies.
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Based on a novel by cult author Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men opens with a laconic voice over from Tommy Lee Jones, the local lawman who informs us about a youth he sent to the electric chair having killed his 14 year old girlfriend. Jones is such a master of delivery that he manages to inject incredulity into his flat recital of the facts saying that the boy denied it was a crime of passion but instead “he had been fixin' to kill someone for sometime.”
You can tell immediately that he is an emotionally exhausted man who no longer understands the world he is policing. He wearily informs us that his father and grandfather was sheriff before him and although he never misses an opportunity to catch on tales of the old times he wonders how his predecessors would cope in this modern world.
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This wonderful monologue sets the tone for everything that follows - even though Tommy Lee Jones' law officer doesn't actually appear on screen for a full 30 minutes. Instead we are introduced to the full ensemble cast - Josh Brolin's itinerant worker Llewelyn Moss, Kelly Macdonald's wonderful transformation into his Texan trailer trash wife Carla Jean Moss, Javier Bardem as the psychopathic killer Anton Chigurh and later Woody Harrelson as the fixer Carson Wells.
The story starts with Brolin out in the dry, dusty desert hunting deer when he comes across a collection of jeeps and 4x4 trucks circled round like a wagon train fighting off marauding Indians.
Gingerly he approaches them, rifle poised - the only thing you can hear is the buzzing of the flies and then you see the bloated, blood-soaked bodies slowly desiccating in the sun. It's clearly a drugs deal that has gone wrong.
Later that night he returns and makes off with the unclaimed money - only he is discovered by colleagues of the Mexican drug runners.
Elsewhere a psychotic killer, played by Golden Globe winner Javier Bardem, is prowling the highway bumping off police officers, passers-by and challenges store-keepers to gamble for their lives on the toss of a coin. It also becomes apparent that he too is on the trail of the missing drug money.
As the bodies stack up Tommy Lee Jones' Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is trying to piece together all the fragmented killings and trying to catch up with Brolin before Anton Chigurh does.
The film is a complex tapestry of people and varied motivations. Like the old westerns of the 40s and 50s, the straight forward storyline is a means to explore other issues and the way that men are frequently are architects of their own downfall. Essentially it's a movie about character flaws.
If all this seems a little bit grim then The Coen brothers lighten the atmosphere with some nicely judged black humour, courtesy of Tommy Lee Jones, and some genuinely tense action scenes. There is a feel of High Noon about the scenes as Brolin appears to nervously out of the window waiting for Chigurh to track him down.
A stunning piece of work which should feature heavily on the Oscar short-list if there is any justice in this world.