Coens shoot for the stars again
‘ THIS country’s hard on people,’’ muses an old Texan, a former lawman, reflecting on his life. His son Ed Tom Bell ( Tommy Lee Jones) is the third generation of sheriffs in this part of the west TexasMexico border country. With its timeless vistas and rock formations, this would be beautiful country if not for the abandoned and rusting cars that litter it, or for the ugly, violent men who inhabit it. Ed Tom reckons the decline began when young people stopped respecting their elders, when they stopped saying ‘‘ sir’’ and ‘‘ madam’’. But he acknowledges that ‘‘ you can’t stop what’s coming’’.
Ed Tom is the moral centre in this adaptation by Joel and Ethan Coen of Cormac McCarthy’s chilling novel No Country for Old Men. It is an extremely faithful version of the book that retains most of McCarthy’s language as well as being a close- to- perfect visualisation of his text. And lovers of the book will be pleased to hear that the Coens have not compromised the ending. They’ve turned a fine book into a great film, the best released here in 2007.
Basically, the theme is a simple one, familiar from many a past thriller. Llewelyn Moss ( Josh Brolin) is an ordinary guy, a Texas everyman who lives with his wife, Carla Jean ( played impeccably by Scottish actor Kelly Macdonald) in a small house, nothing fancy. One night, out hunting deer, he stumbles on a massacre, the site of a gun battle between, presumably, rival drug gangs.
Among the bullet- riddled bodies is a suitcase containing $ 2 million. Llewelyn takes the money and this proves to be a very, very serious mistake. Not only is the sheriff after him but, far more threateningly, so is Anton Chigurh ( Javier Bardem), a long- haired hitman who lives by his own skewed moral code and who, we discover at the outset, is implacably evil. Chigurh is unrelenting in his dealings with those unfortunate enough to cross his path, although he will on occasion allow a coin to be tossed to decide the fate of his latest victim.
As an exercise in suspense, No Country for Old Men has few peers. A sequence in which Llewelyn, in a hotel room, senses that his nemesis is outside the door is nerve- racking for the audience as well as for the protagonist. But the Coens, making their best film since Fargo ( and there are similarities in the combination of ruthlessness and dark, dark humour), have created more than just a thriller: it probably sounds precious to suggest it, but the film is really about the state of the world, a metaphor for the way Western civilisation is heading at the beginning of the 21st century.
The central performances, including Woody Harrelson as an overconfident intermediary working for the owner of the missing money, are beyond praise, but what further distinguishes an already major film is the impeccable casting of the most minor characters: an assortment of hotel clerks, petrol station attendants, storekeepers and others ( one of them played by an actor who reminded me a lot of Marjorie Main) add fresh dimension to the drama.
The highest praise is due to British cinematographer Roger Deakins ( who also photographed Andrew Dominik’s superb The Assassination of Jesse James ). His feel for this parched, dangerous countryside and the towns and small cities that dot the landscape makes an important contribution to the success of a remarkable film.
* * * TODD Haynes’s much- anticipated I’m Not There is not a biography of Bob Dylan but a film about six characters ( played by six actors) who represent different aspects of the life and character of a man very much like Dylan. It’s an audacious idea that pays off in some respects but not in others. It is admirable in many ways but, in the end, a bit precious and faintly boring.
Yet many of the ingredients are exciting. A character called Woody, played by 11- year- old African- American Marcus Carl Franklin, idolises radical folk singer Woody Guthrie. Jack is played well by Christian Bale: set in Greenwich Village, this is more familiar territory, and the perfor- mance of The Times They are a- Changin’ is riveting. Heath Ledger turns up next as Robbie, Dylan the wannabe actor, being beastly to wife Charlotte Gainsbourg. And so it goes on, with good performances, generally speaking. I could have done without Richard Gere’s Billy, an uncertain segment set in the old west, which reminds us that Dylan once played a key role in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid , but which otherwise adds nothing to the already rather indigestible mix.
Hurray for Cate Blanchett! Her Dylan ( called Jude) is the film’s most successful creation, and the sequence in which he plays electric guitar at the New England Jazz & Folk Festival is, well, electric. Haynes has attempted a lot with this film, and though at times he stumbles, at least he’s ambitious. For all its flaws, I’m Not There is a film that demands attention.
Don’t bother knocking: Josh Brolin responds to an unwelcome visit in No Country for Old Men