09 March, 2008

No Country For Old Men

I was conflicted while approaching this film. Is it the new piece by the Coen brothers, or is it the recent Best Picture oscar-winner? Is there even a significant distinction to be drawn between the two?

In a study in coincidence and injustice, the set-up is the cat-and-mouse chase between an innocent everyman who stumbles across a fortune (Josh Brolin), and a maniacal killer, Chigurh, who doesn't follow the expected Hollywood morality for maniacal killers (Javier Bardem).

Don't be drawn in. Neither of these are the lead role. In fact, many events are perceived through the eyes of a retiring sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones). It's through his eyes we assess the rough injustice of the Tex-Mex border region, and ask ourselves if this dark world is as devoid of God as it is seemingly devoid of morality.

These lead roles are truly crucial to the piece; a lesser actor in Jones' place might lead us to wonder whether the film had any meaning whatsoever, while Brolin balances hope, greed, and desperation on a fine knife-edge throughout.

Meanwhile, Bardem astounds. His role is the absolute centre of the work, which at its core is hugely violent. Two grotesque murders await us before any plot has even been divulged. They're so grotesque they conduct the thoughts of both the lead and the audience throughout. Each time Bardem enters a scene he infuses the entire film with a sense of dread.

Chigurh redoubles already unbearable tension with his belief in fate and attitude to justice, so alien to a western audience that he becomes a complete black box. He both enacts and holds to such a belief in fate that we too question whether anyone else can ultimately triumph.

The three main characters dance an intimate and delicate waltz throughout the film. Scene by scene, they never seal each other's fates as we'd expect, but instead, under the guidance of the Coens, weave a web of chance encounter and suspense, that holds us rapt throughout.

The Coens paint a bleak, harsh landscape, of a country that has no regard for our expectations of justice, decency, or even self-determination. Scene by scene they tease out a nervous humour and a thoroughly unconventional narrative, combining it with as masterful direction and cinematography as you'd come to expect from the duo, until regardless of how happy you feel about it, you can't doubt you're watching something truly remarkable.

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