NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
Two days after viewing Joel and Ethan Coen's crime thriller No Country for Old Men, I did something unusual for me: I went to see the movie again. Or rather, I went to listen to it again.
Coen brothers films, with their thrillingly quotable dialogue, are nearly always worth listening to, but the latest in the writer-directors' oeuvre is atypical for its frequent lack of conversation; in numerous sequences, minutes upon minutes pass without a word spoken. Amazingly, though, you hardly notice the absence. What keeps you alert and on-edge, and what potentially sends you back for another visit, is the movie's tangible stillness, occasionally punctuated by sound effects that get you giggling for being so indescribably right. (The quiet unscrewing of a light bulb, or the faraway echo of a telephone ring, are enough to make you shiver here, and then laugh at yourself for shivering.) With cinematographer Roger Deakins presenting staggeringly fine widescreen vistas, No Country is a breathtaking visual experience, but it's an even more breathtaking aural one.
Complementing his boss' appraisal of a crime scene, a sheriff's deputy says, "That's very linear of you," but he may as well be speaking to the Coens, whose adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel is a model of straightforward narrative simplicity. It's actually no insult to describe the plot as "man finds drug money, steals drug money, and is hunted for stealing drug money," as (a) that pretty much sums it up, and (b) plot has very little to do with its brilliance, anyway. With its cast led by the remarkable, effortlessly charismatic Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, and Tommy Lee Jones (who does a wizened Texas spin on Fargo's Marge Gunderson), what we respond to in the Coens' No Country isn't what happens but how it happens; the technical acumen is so fantastically polished and controlled - you're held in a giddy, two-hour vice of unease and expectation - that you may not realize just how little there is to the work until after it ends.
Or, perhaps, even after that. On a second viewing, I remained in thrall to the spectacular set pieces - particularly a mid-film shootout between Brolin and Bardem, which is like the best Hitchcock scene the master never filmed - but realized, à la Gertrude Stein, that there's no there there; the movie, with its elliptical final reel, aims for a depth that it doesn't really possess. (Jones' divinely world-weary utterances could easily fool you into thinking otherwise.) I'm not convinced that No Country for Old Men is a work of art, but its hermetic perfection still offers an extraordinary amount of fun.