After a series of disappointing movies the Coen brothers have finally returned to form with "No Country For Old Men". Recent years had "demoted" the Coen brothers back to the art house under the category interesting directors. Problem was of course that you can start your career that way, but once you established your name it is kind of awkward. "The Man Who Wasn't There" was still an amusing film, but "The Lady Killers" was simply embarrassing for men with the talents of the Coen brothers. After that I might have missed a film or two. But the buzz around their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's book I decided to pay the theater a visit to see if the flick was worth all the hype. I've never really seen what the fuss about Cormac's books is. His last novel "The Road" struck me as filled with one dimensional characters, addressing themes that hadn't been urgent since the Cold War. Granted "No Country For Old Men" was a bit better but McCarthy's books are inhibited by characters of who's motivations remain unclear. His novels always seem a bit too close to black and white notions of good and evil to me. I enjoy the sparsity of McCarthy's writing and his ability to set the seen in as little as possible words, but I always found his characters to be lacking a certain amount of depth. McCarthy never was the writer John Fante and Charles Bukowski were, who were able to combine bare bone writing with a strong sense of what moved the characters that inhibited their novels. McCarthy's works are of a different genre than those two of course, but I feel he could pick up a thing or two from those two authors.
But as the Coen brother's recent flick testifies, McCarthy's novels might prove to be excellent movie scripts. Movies work very different from novels. In movies the director has the non-verbal expression he can work with to give the viewer more of a sense of what moves the character. A movie director doesn't need to use words, he can let the images do the talking. Voice overs in films are often very unnecessary things that are best used very sparsely. The Coen brothers do just that. Although the movie opens with a voice over from sheriff Tommy Lee Jones reflecting on the times his father and grand father held office, simpler times when they didn't need to carry guns. Neither does Jones for the major part of the movie, that is until he ventures into the city. Tommy Lee Jones resorting to his gun seems a key moment in the film. The whole movie seems to radiate a world in which innocence and simplicity is lost. Something that seems to be a main theme in McCarthy's book. His view on the world strikes me as very bleak, a sense masterfully translated to the big screen by the Coens. McCarthy's books generally seem to portray the world coming to an end, portray that we've lost our moral, they're apocalyptic even if the scenery isn't. McCarthy seems to rehash this theme every novel, which basically isn't more than a cynical form of nostalgia. The Coen brother use their trademark dark humor to take the edge of that message. Throwing you of balance all the while. There is something very uncomfortable about finding yourself bursting out in laughter during scenes of extreme violence, you almost feel like an accomplice.
For a thriller "No Country" follows a slow and dragging pace in which the outbursts of extreme violence achieve maximum impact. Other than most high action thrillers that Hollywood churns out these days, "No Country" excels in restraint. You won't find fast action car chases or major shoot outs in this movie. Yet the film keeps you on the edge of your seat. "No County" is filled with unexpected twists in plot. Those changes are often so brutal that the film manages to evoke a level of suspense I haven't seen in movies for a long time. The plot seems a cliché at first. A Vietnam veteran (Josh Brolin) finds 2 million dollars in drugs money in the desert and tries to get away with it. Of course the hardened drugs criminals won't let him and chase him, leaving a trail of blood. Nothing new here. Yet where in McCarthy's novels the one dimensionality of his characters seem to work against him, they become the films major strength. Javier Bardem plays the sociopath chasing Brolin. He manages to radiate such an evil and threat that he becomes uneasy to watch, exactly the kind of feeling you want from a thriller. The scene in which Bardem forces a gas station manager to call heads or tails for his life should not have worked, as it seems something from a cheap B movie. But the casting, acting and cinematography work together so well that you find yourself wanting to look away. The looming evil is so thick and present through out the movie that the almost idyllic closing scene comes as the biggest shock of all.