Coens shoot for the stars again

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - David Stratton

‘ 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

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