LYT's Film Pick of the Weekend 10-11-07

Though I'm mightily anxious to see Richard Kelly's DONNIE DARKO follow-up SOUTHLAND TALES, the weekend's top film pick is a no-brainer.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. People are calling it the best film of the year, and if it isn't, it's darn close.

The Coen brothers have been spinning their wheels for a while -- O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU was good, but I can take or leave INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, THE LADYKILLERS, THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE, and much as I know BIG LEBOWSKI is now beloved by stoner-hipsters, it really isn't as good as the cultists say.

But this is hardcore. There are echoes of previous work --a terminator-like character a la RAISING ARIZONA, and the combination violent-heist/mockery-of-local-speech-patterns obsession of FARGO. Some have said this film is bereft of mockery or humor; I disagree, as undoubtedly would the numerous audience members who laughed with the movie when I saw it. The Coens have a lot of fun with Southern speech, from the overly clipped macho variety ("Where'd you get that gun?" "The gettin' place") to the long, rambling, roundabout way some folks just have when trying to amicably pass the time.

When Llewellyn (Josh Brolin, looking like a dead ringer for a young Nick Nolte) comes across the remnants of a shootout and a suitcase full of money, he takes the cash and gets away clean, until his conscience overtakes him, and he returns to the scene of the crime to give some water to the half-dead man he found there. He is spotted by pissed-off Mexican drug dealers also returning to the scene, and flees, little knowing that the Biggest Badass In the World, a Terminator-like figure named Chigurh (Javier Bardem, with a He-Man pageboy haircut and Lon Chaney scowl of evil) who kills people using an air gun powerful enough to shoot holes in their heads.

All this is observed by an aging sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones), who feels that time is passing him by, and the world is becoming more depraved and unstoppably evil than a man like he can cope with. If Clint Eastwood were the director, this sheriff would undoubtedly saddle up one last time and conquer evil, maybe sustaining a fatal wound in the process. But the Coens are in charge, and they don't play it like that -- this sheriff doesn't just fear he's ineffectual -- he IS ineffectual, powerless to stop the drama unfold.

And that's going to be a big dividing line among viewers of the film. Though the movie doesn't skimp on action and suspense, it doesn't offer a conventionally satisfying conclusion (that's all I'll say on it, and you're better off knowing that going in). Key dramatic moments happen entirely off-camera sometimes, which will piss some people off. But those people may miss the larger themes -- this is less about who gets the money than the fact that nobody can stop the rising darkness in the world (the movie's set in 1980). Naturalism, not heroism.

I haven't read the Cormac MacCarthy novel this is based on -- apparently, the plot and dialogue are quite faithful, though the speech has such a Coen ring to it that an outsider must conclude either that they rewrote things in their style, or that the book complimented their rhythms so perfectly that it was a match made in inevitability. Either way, it's a fantastic choice, and a movie well worth your time.

Caveats: For a mainstream Oscar-aspiring drama, this has some shocks, and moments of violence and gore, that are intense. It also has almost no estrogen -- this is a "guy movie" through and through. Llewellyn's wife and mother play supporting roles, but have little bearing in the action.


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