Thursday, 1 November 2012

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Dir. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Kelly Macdonald

The Coen brothers really do like travelling. In their company so far this year we have seen Arizona, Minnesota and Missisippi. Now it’s time for Texas. 

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin, all grown up from when we last saw him in The Goonies and sporting a fine Burt Reynolds 'tash for Movember) is out hunting in the wide expanses of west Texas when he stumbles upon the site of a massacre. It is a drug deal gone bad. Bodies are strewn everywhere, a pick-up is stuffed full of Mexican cocaine and one of the corpses clutches a case holding $2m. He takes the case. But he is haunted by the memory of a seriously-injured survivor pleading for water, so that night he returns. In this dark world no good deed goes unpunished. He is spotted and pursued by other interested parties. Those parties then sic psychopathic hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) on his tail. To keep the money Llewelyn has to keep on moving, trying desperately to keep one step ahead of Chigurh, assorted Mexican goons and smooth-talking Carter Wells (Doc Hollywood’s Woody Harrelson). Meanwhile laconic old-timer sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) does what he can to keep a lid on the violence. 

For a film by the Coens No Country for Old Men is remarkable for its lack of dialogue. What dialogue there is was lifted almost verbatim from Connor Cormac McCarthy’s original novel. There are no garrulous characters here like Raising Arizona’s Hi, Fargo’s Carl or O Brother, Where Art Thou?’s Virgil. The nearest this film comes is the cocky Carter. Ed Tom provides some complaints about how Texas is going to the dogs, but this is a tough territory where men keep their own council. Instead the lack of dialogue builds the suspense. The violence in Fargo was hap-hazard and risible; here it is grimly real. Once Chigurh has made his mind up to kill someone he does it ruthlessly, whether he is shooting a competitor at point-blank range, strangling a sheriff’s deputy with his handcuffs or using his trademark high pressure gun to slay an innocent passer-by.

One interesting theme is how Chigurh makes the decision to kill. Some he has to – those he is paid to eliminate or those who stand in the way of his objectives or those he judges t be "accountable". But he also has the opportunity to kill those he comes across in his daily business. Some he does, some he doesn’t. And sometimes the decision comes down purely to the flip of a coin. Life and death is that random on the border. There is a chilling scene where Chigurh challenges a gas station owner. His words circle around the poor man like a pack of wolves waiting for the kill. Eventually a coin is flipped. “What is the most you ever lost on a coin toss?” The man, Chigurh informs him, stands to win “everything”; “I can’t call it for you. It wouldn’t be fair.” He makes the same offer to Llewelyn’s young wife (Kelly MacDonald from Trainspotting) at the end of the film. He challenges her to calls heads or tails. She refuses. “The coin don’t have no say”, she says. “It’s just you.” Chigurh himself could not be stopped by human intervention; what finally brings him low is a random traffic accident.

"Check your tyre pressure, sir?"

Death comes quickly out in west Texas. It’s a hardscrabble life and it is terrifying to see the carnage that is unleashed once the promise of money comes on the scene. Ed Tom bemoans the rising tide of violence – but his uncle reminds him that it has always been this way out here and he won’t be able to stop that tide. “Whatcha got ain’t nothin’ new. This country’s hard on people. You can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” The cross-border drugs trade is one example of big money coming into and through the area. Its barrenness is the attraction. But once the case of money goes missing everyone scrambles to find and keep it. Chigurh and the Mexicans kill anyone in their way. Carter glibly promises the world. Even Llewelyn prefers to put the lives of him and his wife on the line rather than give up the loot. Even the promise of a single $100 bill can change people’s nature for the worse. A gravely injured Llewelyn stops a bunch of kids and buys one of their jackets for $100. He then asks for a beer. “What’s it worth?” he is asked. At the film’s climax Chigurh is injured in a road accident. He asks a passing boy for his shirt to fashion a sling. The boy was willing to help him for free but Chigurh insists that he takes a note for his trouble. The boy and his frind immediately start arguing over the money… 

It is the characterisations that make the film. Tommy Lee Jones looks as despairing and world-weary as only Tommy Lee Jones can. Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn is caught like a rat in a trap but has a survivalist’s skills to keep him one step ahead of the competition. But it is Javier Bardem’s unfathomable Chigurh that really owns the show: an Oscar-winning performance in an Oscar-winning movie. I love the fact that he seems, for a killer, to hate blood. After padding through a motel in stockinged feet to ambush three Mexicans he gets rid of his dirty socks. As he talks on the phone a pool of blood spreads from a man he has just killed; he raises his feet up onto the bed. Leaving the house of Carla Jean’s mother he checks the soles of his boots – the only hint as to what actually took place inside. For a directing team so famous for providing cinema-goers with great dialogue here the Coens prove that they can say so much more without words. 

What have I learnt about Texas?
West Texas is defined by the border with Mexico. It has great swathes of arid almost desert terrain: sandy soil, scarce brush, rocky mesas. Trees are rare and the only greenery is down by the watercourses. The emptiness of course makes it ideal for those involved in cross-border smuggling, with the good of choice here being “Mexican brown dope”. There is a fortune to be made in this trade so it is not surprising that disputes turn very violent. When the sheriff’s department get involved they may have to resort to horseback to get across the terrain.

Locals wear cowboy hats and cowboys boots. They dress ‘cowboy’. And they may have double-barrelled forenames like Carla Jean and Ed Tom. When they do speak they speak slowly and sagely. When his deputy comments that the situation is a mess Ed Tom remarks that "If it ain't it'll do til a mess turns up."

Oh yes – and pronghorn antelope roam wild. Now that I never knew. 

Can we go there?
The film is set along the Texan-Mexican border. The action opens in Sanderson, Terrell County, then heads south-east down the Rio Grande. Llewelyn’s flight takes him first to Del Rio, then Eagle Pass, and then over the border into Mexico. He returns to the U.S. to meet up with his wife (who had previously been holed up in Odessa) in El Paso.

Sadly not many scenes were filmed in Texas: the credits state that it was shot mainly in New Mexico. There were some Texan locations used, around Sanderson and Marfa (which is located in Presido County, the setting of Rio Bravo). The scene in the Mexican town square was shot in the Mexican town of Piedras Negras (which would be the town across the border from Eagle Pass). That brief sojourn south of the border seems quite a luxury considering that the rest of the filming took place in New Mexico. 

Las Vegas, N.M., doubled for both Del Rio and Eagle Pass. The Regal Motel was Llewelyn’s base in Del Rio (one wonders if it does indeed have air conditioning vents like in the film). The historic Plaza Hotel was transplanted to Eagle Pass in the film; residents have included real-life characters from films we have seen this year, including Doc Holliday, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. The border crossing was a freeway overpass in the same town with the checkpoint built at the junction of Interstate 25 and New Mexico State Highway 65. The El Paso motel was actually the Desert Sands in Albuquerque.
Overall Rating: 4/5

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