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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN"

No Country For Old Men - the new film from Joel and Ethan Coen Ė is so good that I almost hesitate to write this review. I always try to be cautious about not ruining plot twists in a movie; in this case, I donít even want to ruin individual scenes or moments. Part of its magic is the way the story takes you in unexpected directions at unanticipated times. This is a really brilliant film, but I donít want to be too specific about it, so youíll just have to take my word for it to some degree.

The plot can be summed up very simply. Retired Texas welder Llewelyn Moss (a never-better Josh Brolin) stumbles upon a drug deal gone bad. He walks off with a satchel full of money that he finds in the aftermath and is later pursued relentlessly by the satchelís owner. This is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a ruthless Ė and possibly insane Ė killer who likes to flip a coin to determine the fate of his potential victims. He also carries with him an air tank device of the sort used to kill cattle. (It shoots a little retractable rod into the head.) Tommy Lee Jones plays Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who picks up Chiguhrís trail, tries to help Moss, and imparts both wisdom and weariness to a young deputy heís training. Bell is alarmed by how brutal crime has become since he started his career. Cases like this one shake his foundation.

Sounds like a pretty conventional genre piece, and it would be in other hands. But in adapting Cormac McCarthyís novel, the Coen brothers bring their own unique style and dark humor to the story. In their lesser films, like The Ladykillers or Intolerable Cruelty, they often call attention to their style, using over-the-top camera techniques and moments of really broad comedy. In their best films, such as Fargo (one of my top ten films of all time), they narrow in a little bit, focusing on the details of their story to seize your attention. Consider the scene here in which Chigurh wrestles a man to his death; the Coens take time to get a close-up of the scuffmarks on the floor from their struggle.

Then thereís the superb way they handle some of the scenes between Moss and the killer. In one motel scene, Moss ingeniously tries to smuggle the money out of the same room Chigurh is standing in. The sense of danger conveyed makes you hold your breath in anticipation. In another exemplary scene, Moss sits in a different room staring at the door. He knows Ė as do we Ė that Chigurh is on the other side; we never see him but his presence is betrayed by something heís carrying. What I love is that the Coens know how to achieve suspense through things other than typically staged action. They set the scene instead, concentrating on sound or visual clues, or even tiny little character details. For a film with little overt action, this is one of the most suspenseful things Iíve seen in a while.

Itís also one of the quietest. Youíll be surprised how little dialogue there is. I didnít miss it. No Country For Old Men is a very visual movie. Rather than having the characters tell you everything, the filmmakers allow you to see whatís going on. I didnít realize how chatty so many modern movies are until I saw one thatís not afraid to embrace silence. Itís part of the style and, boy, is it ever effective.

As in most of the Coen brothersí movies, the casting is as inventive as it is solid. Every performer Ė no matter how big or small the role Ė has been carefully chosen to add flavor to the story. Josh Brolin is having quite a year, with this film coming on the heels of strong work in American Gangster and Grindhouse: Planet Terror. Heís really great here, playing Llewelyn as neither good nor bad, just kind of flawed in the way he thinks he can outsmart this incredibly dangerous killer. Tommy Lee Jones is also having a terrific year (having starred in In the Valley of Elah). He has the pivotal role, playing Bellís weariness in such a way that we totally believe the choices he ends up making.

The performance thatís going to get everyone talking, though, is from Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh. Iím not sure how they arrived at this casting choice, but itís pure gold. Bardem is chilling as the psycho who calmly yet diligently chases after his money. He doesnít play the role in an obvious way, as many actors would. Instead, his psycho is almost understated. You see the crazy in his eyes rather than in his attitude.

No Country For Old Men does not end where you expect it to, and thatís probably something you should know going in. The reason is that, at its core, this is not a story about Llewelyn Moss or Anton Chigurh or who ends up with the money. Instead, itís about Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. For a movie that has such little dialogue, No Country ends with two (beautifully scripted) talky scenes. Itís here, in the final minutes, that the real theme of the story comes through. My advice is to pay close attention to everything Tommy Lee Jones says throughout the story. Remember what he says at the very beginning when he speaks at the end, and consider the meaning of the title. Iím not going to even hint at it. Instead, Iíll say that this is a fascinating story about the changing nature of crime and how law enforcement officials may deal with it.

Joel and Ethan Coen have been making great films for a long time, and this is one of their three best films, with Fargo and Raising Arizona being the others. The storytelling is so pitch perfect that it almost hypnotizes you. I treasure movies such as this Ė movies that put you in a location, allow you to soak up the details, and constantly take you places you donít anticipate going. No Country For Old Men is a masterpiece.

( out of four)


No Country For Old Men is rated R for strong graphic violence and some language. The running time is 2 hours and 2 minutes.

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