No Country for Old Men

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This review was written for the festival screening of "No Country for Old Men."

CANNES -- Joel and Ethan Coen's In Competition film is titled "No Country for Old Men," but it's set in an unforgiving 1980s West Texas landscape that appears to be populated with nothing but old men. Lawmen, mostly, like Tommy Lee Jones' Sheriff Bell, pining for the old days when outlaws weren't relentless killing machines like the one who has come to menace his hardscrabble community.

The film attains an extraordinary level of tension as a fiercely dedicated drug runner named Anton Chigurh, brilliantly played by Javier Bardem, pursues a man who has stumbled upon and taken his money. The Coens' typically superior filmmaking sustains the electrifying mood for most of the picture, but they are undone by being too faithful to the source novel by Cormac McCarthy.

Plot holes, cracker-barrel philosophizing and setting a major climactic scene offscreen serve to undo all their fine work. The entire premise of the film is to pitch three men onto a path that will lead to a final reckoning, but it just peters out. Audiences will flock to see a mainstream Coen Bros. film with such a colorful villain, but word-of-mouth about its fizzled conclusion may do damage at the boxoffice.

There is a lot of carnage in "Old Men," and some of it has already taken place when Vietnam veteran Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) comes across the scene of what is obviously a big-time drug deal gone bad. Bodies litter the ground between shot-out vehicles, there's a truckload of neatly packed dope and a satchel containing millions of dollars. One man remains alive and asks for water. Absurdly, for a seasoned hunter on that arid terrain, Moss doesn't have any. He takes the money back to the trailer he shares with a devoted young wife played convincingly by Kelly MacDonald, but in the middle of the night he is stricken with guilt. Not about taking the money but about leaving a dying man with no water. So goes in the dark to the isolated killing scene where he knows there's a vast quantity of drugs.

Inevitably, men with guns who have a proprietary interest in the contraband make their presence felt and Moss is fast on the run. Leading the chase is Chigurh, a man of perhaps East European extraction, who carries a tank of compressed air attached to the kind of bolt gun used to slaughter cattle. It sounds like something Carl Hiaasen would come up with, but Bardem plays the drug runner with such humorless conviction that his weapon of choice becomes truly threatening. Chiguhr, however, joins the list of implacable murderers such as Hannibal Lecter and the Terminator whose encounters with terrified innocent people are played for laughs. Chiguhr mostly just slays anyone he encounters but now and then he lets the toss of a coin decide someone's fate.

Sheriff Bell is on the case, looking to prevent the madman from killing too many people, especially Moss, but instead of being the Tommy Lee who always gets his man, this officer of the law is an ineffectual old windbag. Woody Harrelson has a brief and redundant role as a mistakenly cocky bounty hunter.

Brolin is terrific as the likable country boy who sees his shot at the main chance and grabs it, although mid-way through the film when he has survived long enough to reach Mexico, he inexplicably doesn't stay there. His vet is tough and resourceful, though, and the film cries out for a resolution that, if not a happy one, would at least be satisfying. But McCarthy and the Coens would rather offer macho posturing about lost ideals than get down to business.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
Paramount Vantage and Miramax Films
A Scott Rudin/Mike Zoss production
Credits:
Screenwriter-directors: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Producers: Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Based on the novel by: Cormac McCarthy
Executive producers: Robert Graf, Mark Roybal
Director of photography: Roger Deakins
Production designer: Jess Gonchor
Music: Carter Burwell
Costume designer: Mary Zophres
Editor: Roderick Jaynes
Cast:
Sheriff Ed Tom Bell: Tommy Lee Jones
Anton Chigurh: Javier Bardem
Llewelyn Moss: Josh Brolin
Carson Wells: Woody Harrelson
Carla Jean Moss: Kelly MacDonald
Wendell: Garret Dillahunt
Loretta Ball: Tess Harper
Ellis: Barry Corbin
Man who hires Wells: Stephen Root
El Paso sheriff: Rodger Boyce
Carla Jean's mother: Beth Grant
Poolside woman: Ana Reeder
Sheriff Bell's secretary: Kit Gwin
Strangled deputy: Zach Hopkins
Man in Ford: Chip Love
Agua man: Eduardo Antonio Garcia
Gas station proprietor: Gene Jones
Managerial victims: Myk Watford, Boots Southerland
Desert Aire manager: Kathy Lamkin
Cabbie at bus station: Johnnie Hector
Waitress: Doris Hargrave
Gun store clerk: Rutherford Cravens
Sporting goods clerk: Matthew Posey
Mexican in bathtub: George Adelo
Hitchhike driver: Mathew Greer
Nervous accountant: Trent Moore
Hotel Eagle clerk: Marc Miles
Pickup driver: Luce Rains
Border bridge youths: Philip Bentham, Eric Reeves, Josh Meyer
Flatbed driver: Chris Warner; INS official: Brandon Smith
Well-dressed Mexican: H. Roland Uribe
Chicken farmer: Richard Jackson
Boys on bikes: Josh Blaylock, Caleb Jones
Odessa cabbie: Dorsey Ray
Norteno band: Angel H. Alvarado Jr., David A. Gomez, Milton Hernandez, John Mancha
Running time -- 122 minutes
MPAA rating: R

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