The Coen brothers are batting .500–not for their career, certainly, but for this year’s Academy Awards. “No Country for Old Men” won four Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay) but lost for cinematography, editing, sound, and sound editing. And you know what? I think that cinematographer Roger Deakins probably should have won as well. His exterior shots of the rugged West are nothing short of poetic, while his camera work in tight spaces required a contortionist’s body, and his handling of the violence was so matter-of-fact that it was made all the more chilling. No shaky camera stuff, no slo-mo, no skip-frame, no tricks–just a cinematographer’s feel for how to frame shots to get the right effect, how to use angles to evoke an emotional point of view, and how to let the camera run just long enough to tell the story and get the hell out of there.
On one of the bonus features, the Coens talk about how important the cinematography was–particularly of the land–to the feel of the film, which was adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel. All that beauty, all that rugged terrain, and all that expansiveness really drive home the novel’s themes. In effect, McCarthy, best known for his Border trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain), relocates his lament of the changing West to the 1980s.
Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones, in one of his best performances–and no nomination!) is an aging West Texas lawman who launches into an ubi sunt(Where are?) monologue in the opening voiceover. Where are the days when a lawman could patrol this wide expanse without even carrying a gun? Where are the days when you could keep up with the criminals? This border drug trade has really upped the ante for old-timers like Bell, and he frankly wonders whether he’s up to the task of tangling with men who would kill at such a brutal level–not just once, but as a matter of course. People like this just aren’t human.
McCarthy’s novel and the Coen’s screenplay features three main characters in what amounts to a modern-day Western. It all starts when a local stumbles upon the carnage of a drug deal gone bad while he’s out hunting antelope. Among the bodies and bullet-riddled cars is a pile of heroin and a suitcase full of money–lots of money. Too much, in fact, for a normally law-abiding guy like Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) to pass up. So he grabs the cash, full knowing that the people who did this would find out who had the money, track him down, and kill him. But of course he has a plan.
It doesn’t take long before Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, in his award-winning performance) is on Moss’s tail. Chigurh is a psychopathic killer hired by the drug kingpin to get that money and the person responsible. And he’ll go down in cinematic history as one of the most chilling killers, thanks in part to that oxygen tank he carries that’s hooked up to a bolt gun. On their tail is Sheriff Bell and his deputy (Garret Dillahunt). But so is another hired gun (Woody Harrelson) who’s engaged by a drug kingpin to catch up to the out-of-control Chigurh, who moves through the landscape like an ornery sidewinder, striking casually at anything in his path. At times, Chigurh seems totally amoral, but then there’s the coin that he asks some of the people to call. “Heads or tails?” he asks. “What do I win?” a man responds. “Everything,” comes the answer. The flip determines whether Chigurh kills or not.
Touches like that make “No Country for Old Men” a rich and engaging crime thriller, if you can stand the blood and violence. The way that relationships are developed also adds texture, whether it’s a conversation between Bell and Wendell that shows how the younger man is a little more up-to-speed in some areas (while the wily old guy one-ups him on the old ways), or surprisingly understated scenes of tenderness between Bell and his wife (Tess Harper) and Moss and the wife he sends away, trying to protect Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) from the mess he’s gotten them into. Curiously, McCarthy and the Coen brothers are able to move the plot forward nicely by keeping the principles from intersecting, and they use two unpredictable killers and a sense of randomness to further drive the tension. Like the needle in the heart in “Pulp Fiction,” the episodes that will stick in filmgoers’ memories years from now are the chilling encounters between Chigurh and his victims/would-be victims. That, and Moss’s encounter with the dog from hell.
In their joint theatrical review, John J. Puccio and Christopher Long only gave this film a 6 and 5, respectively–John because he lost interest mid-way, and Chris because he had a problem with Chigurh. So would I have come in at a lower number, were I not reviewing this after all the accolades? Not for a minute. Everyone praised “Brokeback Mountain,” and when I saw that I thought it was the most cardboard story imaginable. And when “Titanic” and “Crash” won Best Picture Oscars, I was among those in the audience (home, that is) shouting things like “Boo” and “Hiss.” I thought “Good Will Hunting” kicked “Titanic’s” butt, as did “As Good as It Gets,” and for my money “Capote,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” and “Munich” were better films than “Crash.” But that’s the way the movie (and reviewing) business goes. People raved this year about “There Will Be Blood,” and that’s the one that seemed more ordinary to me than “epic.” This year, the two films that impressed me most had strong, almost poetic cinematography that worked well to support the film’s emotional core. “Atonement” and this film by Joel and Ethan Coen. And curiously, the ending in both seems less than satisfying. But the performances in “No Country for Old Men” are wonderful, the script brings the novel visually to life, and the film has the elegiac feel that has marked McCarthy’s contemporary Western sagas.
These days it’s hard to tell what’s player and what’s disc-related, but my copy of “No Country for Old Men” had some compression squiggles around the 13-minute mark that lasted for about 15 seconds, and then the film was fine again. The 1080p picture looks great, though, with colors saturated just enough to look natural for the arid Texas landscape. The black levels appear strong, the picture is super-sharp, and there’s a very nice amount of detail, even on the edges with bright colors such as red and orange.
The audio is also strong, with an English PCM 5.1 uncompressed (48kHz/24-bit) soundtrack making full use of the speakers and spread nicely so that the sound seems to hover rather than hang close to the source. Gunshots almost seem to ricochet, the sound is so crisp and precise. It’s an exceptional soundtrack that nicely modulates the volume so that the action scenes aren’t so overpowering that you need to turn it down a notch, and the quiet dialogue scenes aren’t so whispery that you need to crank it up. No other language options, though–just an English Dolby Digital 5.1 compressed track, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
For a film this “big,” unfortunately, there’s not a lot here. A 26-minute making-of feature that’s pretty basic, and two mini-features in the eight-minute range are the only extras, and they’re really run-of-the-mill. They’re most useful for isolating clips that zero in on what McCarthy and the Coens were trying to say, and most interesting when we learn how much harder it is to handle production design for a “period” film set just 25 years ago. And I have to admit that I took some delight in hearing Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald’s natural thick accent juxtaposed against clips of her sounding Texas-tough.
“No Country for Old Men” is so beautifully filmed that it seems poetic, and that makes the violence even more intense. This is no country for anyone, not just aging lawmen. Bardem got the statue, but it was Tommy Lee Jones who had me admiring his every move and phrase. The man sure knows how to bring a Texas sheriff to life.