A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere. What would you do if stumbled upon a satchel filled with $2 million in drug money? Would you turn it in to the police or would you keep it for yourself? This is the decision that faces Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin, Grindhouse) and it is this decision that fuels No Country For Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen’s best film since Fargo. Comparisons between the two films will inevitably be made in the future, if not already. I’d like to see No Country For Old Men be referred to as Fargo’s western cousin. From the novel by Cormac McCarthy, the Coens have concocted a lurid and unremitting thriller that will undoubtedly leave the viewer with both chills and some food for thought long after it’s over.

The film is sprawled over various parts of South Texas in 1980. Out hunting one day, Llweyln Moss comes across a drug deal gone horribly awry. All involved are dead, their bodies becoming putrid under the hot sun. One of them has a satchel filled with money. Moss decides to take the money, thinking that all who know about it are dead and that no one will ever know he took it. He soon finds out that he has made a monumental mistake. Now he is being hunted by the owner of the money, the eerie Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, 2004’s The Sea Inside), a psychopathic and obsessive-compulsive killer. The third-party observer trying to piece the puzzle together in all of this is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), whose standpoint is very similar to that of the character played by Frances McDormand in Fargo.

There is very little if any (that I can recall) music scored for the picture. A curious choice, but one that works. Usually films use a score to heighten a moment or uplift spirits, but the Coens, who also edited the picture (credited under pseudonyms), set their film at a gradual, consistent pace and meticulously let tension, characters, and dialogue do all that is necessary. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is impeccable and captures the mood of a contemporary western. Deakins has outdone himself this year by working on other gorgeously filmed titles like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and In the Valley of Elah. If Deakins fails to receive an Oscar nomination, then there is something seriously wrong.

You are unlikely to find a trio of actors this year who hit their roles closer to home than that of Jones, Bardem and Brolin. It is certainly Bardem’s character that deserves discussion first. Making up for his lackluster performance in Love in the Time of Cholera, Bardem creates the most remarkable and memorable villain since Sergi Lopez’s Captain Vidal in Pan’s Labyrinth. Chigurh is not just enigmatic but inscrutable. He doesn’t understand people and actually looks down on any other being that has a trace of humanity in them. Thus it quite easy for him to kill anyone he meets on a whim. He lets his compulsions dictate how he interacts with people. If you strike him as a lesser being you might be fortunate enough for him to give you a coin-toss chance of living. Whether he’s been shot in the leg or broken his arm, he never once shows pain because it would mean succumbing to the sensations felt by a lesser being.

Josh Brolin makes a breakthrough turn as Llewelyn Moss. Playing in films such as The Dead Girl, Grindhouse, the masterpiece American Gangster, and now his meatiest role yet in No Country For Old Men, Brolin is on fire. He is an immediately likable hero for the audience to cheer on. With the penury he and his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald, 2005’s Nanny McPhee), live in it is understandable for Moss to do what he does. But he’s not stupid nor is he weak and he proves to be a worthy match in the cat-and-mouse game between himself and Chigurh. Most importantly, he proves himself as a decent man. He loves his wife, although he doesn’t show it, but with what Chigurh threatens him with, we know it.

It is these hunter vs. prey scenes that are the most memorable in No Country For Old Men, especially a fist-tightening sequence set at a hotel. This sequence is wonderfully visualized and brilliantly executed. Shown from the perspective of Moss, the Coens let the tension slowly build until just the right moment, making this viewer nearly jump out of his chair. Chigurh’s position isn’t seen until the end of the sequence, which makes it even more suspenseful. It would be very interesting to see the Coens direct a horror film after showcasing their masterful techniques here.

As Sheriff Bell, Tommy Lee Jones gives his best and most impressive performance since 1993’s The Fugitive. If Jones garners an Oscar nomination it will probably be for Best Actor but his role would be better categorized as a supporting one. But it is Jones’ character to whom the title is referring to. Curiously, the title doesn’t have anything to do with the feud between Moss and Chigurh and isn’t explained until the final act, which primarily belongs to Jones. It is probably these last twenty minutes or so that have critics hailing the film as a masterpiece.

As with Fargo, you’ll find scenes in No Country For Old Men that may strike you as excisable at first but you’ll realize later just how important they were. Case in point is a scene that leads into the film’s denouement, which is blessedly unconventional from most movies and lets the viewer have their own hindsight of the events that take place off-screen. Most will be caught off guard by what develops in the final act. The last scene, featuring a poignant Jones, warrants discussion. It doesn’t tie up any loose-ends nor is it very satisfiable, but the Coen’s approach here is bold and admirable. Above all else it is more real than anything I have seen in a film from this genre because things don’t turn out the way Bell would have liked them to. It shows a man, after all he has been through and seen as a Sheriff, lost and confused about who he is supposed to be. Whether you’re for or against the ending, it will give you something to ruminate over after you leave the theater. I’m still not sure about it; but I’m also still thinking about it.

Grade: A-

Lions for Lambs Poster Release Date: November 21, 2007
Rated: R for strong graphic violence and some language.
Running Time: 122 min.
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson
Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Screenplay: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Cormac McCarthy (novel)
Studio: Miramax
Official Website: Click Here

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