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No Country for Old Men captivates with haunting murder streak

Mark Witte | Wednesday, November 28, 2007

“No Country for Old Men” is a movie about evil. It is a movie about murder and it is a movie about uncertainty. It may be the Coen Brothers’ (“Fargo,” “The Big Lebowksi”) finest work.

Based off of author Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, “No Country for Old Men” begins its merciless brutality with Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Chigurh is a man who speaks softly and carries a big tank of compressed air, which he uses to punch holes in the heads of his victims. The killing begins when he strangles a police officer, breaking out of jail. The movie then follows the path of destruction he leaves in his wake. But for the most part, his motive for killing falls upon the unfortunate head of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a poor Vietnam veteran living in a trailer with his wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) down in Texas near the Mexican border.

Llewelyn’s trouble starts when, while deer hunting one day, he unexpectedly comes upon the aftermath of a bloody shootout, involving a slew of dead bodies, a truck-bed of drugs, a dying Mexican pleading for “agua” and a suitcase of cash. Llewelyn decides to take the money and return home. Later that night, against his wife’s pleading, he returns to the bloody scene with a jug of water, but his charitable action quickly puts his life in danger. He returns to find the man dead, the drugs gone, and an angry truckload of Mexicans who flatten his truck’s tires before chasing him into a nearby river.

Chigurh soon arrives at the scene with a couple of well-dressed Americans and, upon finding Llewelyn’s truck and a transponder for tracking the briefcase, he promptly executes his companions. He then spends the rest of the film hunting down Llewelyn and the money.

There is another part to this tale as well, seen through the eyes of an aging Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). Bell opens the film with a narration in which he recalls sending a boy to the electric chair for killing his young teenage girlfriend: “The papers said it was a crime of passion, but he tolt me there weren’t nothin’ passionate about it. Said he’d been fixin’ to kill someone for as long as he could remember. Said if I let him out of there, he’d kill somebody again. Said he was goin’ to hell. Reckoned he’d be there in about 15 minutes.”

Bell continues, saying, “I don’t know what to make of that, I really don’t.”

The incomprehension of such evil lies at the heart of this film and none of the characters understand it. Bell spends most of the film in Chigurh and Llewelyns’s footsteps, hopelessly trying to catch up. Bell never once judges the decision Llewelyn made in taking the money, and the film doesn’t either. Instead it focuses on dealing with what comes next.

Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) is a witty, fast-talking hitman hired to track down Chigurh, and he provides some comic relief in the mostly-serious film.

On the whole, the movie moves at a slow pace. However, there’s something fascinating about the way the Coen Brothers’ film their character. It’s hard not to be captivated by their struggles.

The Coen Brothers create suspense through the actions of their actors. From the sound of Chigurh’s boots, to the heavy breathing of Llewelyn, down to the cocking of a gun, a serious suspense pervades the film.

The story’s desert setting is barren, not only in landscape, but in people, too. There aren’t many extras in this film and the ones who are in it die quickly. The barren backdrop makes for quite a few shots in which only one character appears in the frame. You’ll feel Llewelyn’s loneliness and his fear as Chigurh chases him through empty streets.

The Coen Brothers’ film was nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival this year.

The film never once descends into cliché, and sticks to a serious plot. The film won’t rile your emotions, but it will make you think.

Contact Mark Witte at mwitte@nd.edu