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Review: No Country For Old Men

No Country For Old Men has been hailed as a bona fide masterpiece by just about every living critic, so I want to make a few comments slightly to the contrary, maybe like one of the ornery 'ol coots in the film itself. The directors are smug as smug can be, and always have been. Their triumphs (like Fargo) seem to be achieved despite their winks and nods. Compared to sublime, dark masters of the post-modern, like David Lynch, their cinematic works seem like the Mad Magazine spoofs of the real things. That was their skill and brilliance, this pastiche-style. This new picture is being rewarded with awe, and shucks it's great, because it has none of that. It is as if someone stripped off all the layers of paint on some old farmhouse floors, and let the original grain earn its keep.

The mise-en-scene is controlled, and exact. The camera is steady, and it is eagle-eyed. I very much enjoyed the book this movie is based on, and can attest to the verisimilitude of the transition from page to screen - the look and feel of the imagined moment is complete. There are several key locations - signalled by the John Ford reference near the beginning (watch the vehicles throughout as a key image-system) - that establish this is the modern, serious Western films like Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, or even Unforgiven, tried to kill off.
It is, of course, like The Searchers, except this time, the one searching is pure evil, and, essentially (but not certainly, the film's hinge) wins. Though in The Searchers, Wayne was morally tainted, too. What I am getting at is, this is a reverent take on America, men, and The West. Tommy Lee Jones is terrific as the mainly passive, measured, ruminating, ageing, Good Sheriff, the man who lost the West, but did so with gravitas, dignity, and decency, intact. His final dream-soliloquy expresses this vision utterly - his father is riding into the darkness, with a horn of fire, to blaze the trail. The truth is, it is darkness ahead, God may be mainly absent, but there will be fire, there will be fathers. I love this sad, nostalgic tone - captured well, oddly enough, in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings Trilogy, also a Western in genre - and also about the fading of a whole way of life, an enchanted, fabled past - in this case, America's frontier expansion, at the expense of much blood and treasure, and many Native American lives.

The wide open spaces are now sun-bleached, and a mess of corpses, and meaningless money just left in the open, as good as gold, or oil, and as bad. The biblical monotony of this film is unleavened by the Avenging Assassin, plated by Javier Bardem. He seemed to me to be channeling Nicholas Cage, The Coen Bros.'s own cut-rate Cary Grant, in terms of sullen nerdiness and weird danger. The role has been described as star-making and brilliant, but, when the dust settles, will likely be seen as simply dull and strange. The best performance is from Josh Brolin, who comes from nowhere and has a solid, manly Cowboy presence that seems uncannily sturdy. The main lack in the picture - which at times is as thrilling as the best Hitchcock (especially in the three key motel/hotel sequences, all homages to Psycho) - is the one central to the ultimate theme: that there is no final confrontation between man and devil on this soiled earth. That is, the Showdown, the gun battle, is deferred, endlessly - the West is the victim of some eternal recurrence, where evil gets its scalp, and god-fearing, gun-toting men, take their chances - or, as Moss's wife decides, much to her credit - they don't. Because there can be no final meeting of the mad killer, and the good man, the suspense dries up when Moss's blood gets shed for the final time. The last reel is a hollow, mournful coda to a beautifully-rendered, oddly-inert drama. Less a film than a morality tale, this is latterday Bergman in Texas, bone-dry and emblematic as hell. I guess what I am finally trying to say here is this: all the other Coen movies were Genre Movies Playing at Being Art House - this one here's an Art Film, Playing At Genre. Go in thinking this is going to be just a funny, dark thriller, and you'll be puzzled by its fearsome, slow-running depths, and arid desert spaces. Four Specs.

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