No Country For Old Men – Blu-ray Review
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is a sad, brutal film – not horror, per see, but definitely horrorifc – that somehow manages to be an exhilarating, overwhelmingly positive movie-watching experience. While the lion’s share of credit has (rightly) gone to directors Joel and Ethan Coen, the film is also stacked with superior performances, from the lead actors right down to the various desk clerks and hotel managers who somehow manage to burn-in an impression in just a single scene. Credit also the superbly evocative book by Cormac McCarthy, which gave the Coens a proper framework to operate with – something they occasionally operate without.
1980. While out on a hunting trip in the west Texas desert, welder Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) happens upon a disturbingly fresh crime scene; almost a dozen bullet-riddled bodies lay baking in the midday heat – the end result of a drug deal double cross. Moss finds a suitcase holding several million dollars that the lower, lower middle class Moss takes without much soul searching. But he also finds a survivor of the massacre, slowly dying of a gunshot wound and pleading for water that Moss doesn’t have. Deciding to do the decent thing, Moss fills a water jug and drives back out to the man in the middle of the night only to find himself ambushed by a second group of men who are looking for the money taken by Moss. A businessman responsible for the deal (Stephen Root) mistakenly take Moss for a cold-blooded criminal, and hires the ruthless killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, an Oscar-winner for the role) to retrieve the money. Trouble is, once the lethal Chigurh is let off the leash, he leaves a very public trail of bodies leading to the hiring of yet another man, Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) to shadow Chigurh. All this is a puzzle to Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) who views this new world of unreasonably violent criminals with quiet disbelief. He walks through Chigurh’s crime scenes and can’t fathom the mind able to perpetrate this level of mayhem, and feels that he can do little to stop him from finding Moss and the money, in spite of the promise made to Moss’ wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald).
The Coen brothers went through a bit of an artistic dry spell following 1996’s Fargo; while The Big Lebowski eventually found a devoted cult audience, it had disappeared without a trace after its release in 1998 and the near unwatchable one-two punch of Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers left even diehard fans scratching their heads. It seems odd to call NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN a return to form when you’re dealing with a filmography as eclectic as the Coen brothers, but its neo-noir style and darkly comedic asides immediately recall their beloved early works Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing. Like those early films, No Country creates a violent, unpredictable world out of the open spaces and silence of the American south/southwest. By eschewing large scale action scenes, the Coens focus their attention on moments of quiet dread, punctuated by startling bursts of violence (we can’t remember a film that has used silence to such suspenseful effect). Even in the brothers’ comedies, violent death strikes unexpectedly, and moments like Brad Pitt’s demise in Burn After Reading send audiences rocketing out of their seats. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN feels like the accumulation of a career’s worth of filmmaking, perfecting their own special blend of crime thriller and dark comedy but with real pathos and affection for their characters (something even Fargo didn’t always have).
One unquestionable shift in the latter Coen’s films is an emphasis on performance and character, rather than camera trickery. Even in a decidedly lesser effort like The Ladykillers, Tom Hanks is given the room to create a wonderfully unique comic character, no matter that the film it resides in doesn’t work. The actor who got the lion’s share of attention in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is, of course, Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh – a force-of-nature performance that would have made you run in the other direction if you saw the actor coming down the street (in much the same way that Robert Carlyle’s work in Trainspotting did for us). Arriving onscreen with a Dutch-boy haircut, awkward clothes, and halting, untraceable speech pattern, our first temptation is to laugh, until we see him garrote a deputy with the handcuffs already locked around his wrists. Chigurh is clearly a psychopath driven by pure ruthlessness, but he also seems to have a bizarre code of conduct that he adheres to (a gas station attendant seems as amazed as we are to be left alive by Chigurh). Augmenting Bardem’s performance are two of the more memorable weapons we’ve yet seen employed on film – a silenced shotgun and a pressurized portable air gun similar to the type used on cattle. We don’t know who won the Oscar for sound effects editing that year, but the distinct sound that the canister makes as its set on the ground is ridiculously memorable.
Sheriff Bell carries a world-weariness that few actors other than Tommy Lee Jones would be able to exude so effortlessly. He appears to carry the weight of every murder that he’s seen on his shoulders, and even at the beginning of the story he has the eyes of someone that has already seen how the case is going to end, and the news isn’t good. If Jones does make too much of a habit of playing this very nearly archetypical role, it’s probably because he’s better at it than anyone else; we could imagine the film with another actor playing Moss or Chigurh (though it would be considerably less for it) but without Jones at its heart, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN simply would not work. Jones’ is such a natural screen presence that we occasionally take him and his performances for granted, and it’s easy to forget what a brilliant actor he can be.
Considering the company, it would be easy for Josh Brolin to get lost. After years of turns in questionable fare like Into the Blue and Hollow Man, 2007 marked the beginning of a flurry of memorable parts that included lead roles in films like nand W. and supporting roles in Grindhouse, Milk and American Gangster (which he steals from both Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in just a few scenes). He’s got the intensity and charm that his father only occasionally got the chance to show (see Night of the Juggler for what might have been for dad James) and makes Moss’ more questionable choices seem utterly natural. It’s a role that could have, in lesser hands, been simply a dim-bulb southern hick propelled by events, but Brolin makes Moss into an actual human being who reacts to deadly situations in a realistic, believable way.
We also need to mention the superb supporting turns by Harrelson, Root, and the Glasgow-born (and absolutely adorable) Macdonald. It’s another hallmark of a Coen brothers film to have even the smallest roles expertly cast, and we greatly enjoyed Tess Harper as Bell’s wife, Loretta, Barry Corbin as a wheelchair-bound retired Sheriff, and one of our favorite Deadwood vets, Garret Dillahunt, as Bell’s slower-witted deputy.
This is the second Blu-Ray release for NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, and the image appears identical to the previous edition. We find it a very pleasing transfer, nicely capturing Roger Deakins’ saturated, bleached-out photography. We’ve heard some complaints about the 1080p image, but it appears almost exactly as we remember it from its theatrical release, and the DTS-HD audio track perfectly captures the film’s careful sound design.
The studio-fluff extras from the previous edition are carried over, including a better than average making-of piece along with shorter, specific segments on the Coens and the Sheriff Bell character. New bits include a humorous, tongue-in-cheek video journal by Brolin featuring clips from the EPK material and new interview footage featuring Bardem (who’s very funny) and Harrelson, though the camera’s auto-focus seems to favor the foliage behind Woody.
The most interesting new offering is a timeline featuring the actors and filmmakers on a post-release promotional tour for NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. There are some surprisingly long segments here, like a 40-minute appearance by Bardem and Brolin at an Apple store, and an hour long Q&A with the Coens and other production personnel hosted by Spike Jonze (who unfortunately takes 5 minutes to stammer through a 30 second question). A second disc includes a digital copy of the film.
Our only complaint about the disc is the inclusion of an anti-tobacco advert that begins automatically when “Play” is selected from the menu. It’s the spot with the Times Square cowboy singing with the aid of a voice box from the smug folks at thetruth.com. We’ve never smoked and don’t advocate the habit, but we do object strongly to the money spent on excessive sin taxes given to groups like this by the government to produce self-righteous PSAs which are then shoved down our throats on an already too-expensive Blu-Ray disc.