Saturday, February 02, 2008

No Country for Old Men

The conventional wisdom on No Country for Old Men is that it's a return to form by the Coen Brothers after a string of rather dodgy films. To be honest, I think that's a little harsh on their recent work. Intolerable Cruelty wasn't a bad film, it just wasn't up to the astronomically high standards of Fargo. Which is to say, it wouldn't look so bad if you weren't expecting genius.

Anyway, that won't be a problem with No Country, which is clearly back up to the standards of their best work. It's an adaptation a Cormac McCarthy novel which I haven't read, but supposedly it's extremely faithful - it's is streamlined for running time, but that's about it. The story is pretty straightforward. Llewellyn Moss stumbles upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone horribly wrong, and takes the opportunity to make a break for it with the money. Hitman Anton Chigurh is sent to get it back. And there's an investigating sheriff, Tommy Lee Jones, whose main job is to be baffled and appalled.

Much of the film is essentially an extended chase, with Moss trying to hide the money and shake off Chigurh. Chigurh is by far the most striking element in the film - an utterly relentless pursuer who is more a force of nature than a straightforward lunatic. He doesn't kill people for fun, although he seems to enjoy toying with them in the process. Rather, in his own eyes, Chigurh is the hand of fate, hunting down people who have been marked for death, not just by his employers, but by the universe. It would simply be cosmically wrong not to kill them. He's an incredible villain, as he subtly makes the transition from being just another maniac to something truly inevitable.

All that was in the book, but it's easy to see why it would appeal to the Coens, who have always liked "unstoppable evil" characters. Still, for all the film's faithfulness to the source, it's amazing to see just how good the Coens really are at filmmaking. Even working entirely from someone else's material - albeit material particularly suited to their foibles - the skill and power of their storytelling is incredible.

All the details are there. Everything is perfectly chosen. They can take something which, for most directors, would have been a standard establishing shot or a point of view shot, saying nothing more than "This is where they are" or "This is what he's looking at", and invest it with more meaning just by the way they frame the shot and pace the editing - while still performing all the standard storytelling functions as well. It's the sort of film that brings home the difference between the merely adequate and the genuinely gifted. It flags up how often most directors fall back on hackneyed devices, when you see a film by people who have obviously put immense thought into everything.

This is a wonderful film, adapting a powerful story in a way that reminds me of what cinema can really do.