Friday, December 28, 2007

What's the Most YOU Ever Lost on a Coin Toss?

I've already talked a little about No Country for Old Men in my Cannes post. I saw it twice there and was simply astonished by it. But it deserves its own review on here. It's hard to begin writing when everything about it is so perfect. It really is flawless. I love the Coen Brothers, but I think it's their best film yet, and that's saying a lot, because they're insanely talented.

So, I'll start briefly with the plot. The film focuses on the intersecting lives of three men: psychopathic serial killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) with the coolest weapon ever (not that I condone violence, but it's pretty bad-ass) and the scariest bowl-cut in history, near-retirement sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), and average, rugged hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin). This is very much a modern western and takes place in sprawling, sandy, desolate landscapes. Llewelyn stumbles across a whole lot of money in a suitcase during his hunting, amongst the bodies of a drug deal gone wrong. Chigurh is involved with this deal and wants his money, so Llewelyn inadvertently gets himself involved with a really bad dude. Ed Tom Bell investigates it all and tries to protect Llewelyn.

This is based on a book by Cormac McCarthy, but I've heard the film is way better than the book. I've perused the book - some of the dialogue is taken word for word. But other than that, this script is all Coen. I think their screenwriting skills are grossly underrated. The cinematography by their long-time collaborator Roger Deakins has never been better. It's beautiful, panoramic, and haunting. The sound design, the editing, the production design - everything is exceptional. This is a film I would show to a class as an example of a perfect film that incorporates and exploits every available technique for maximum impact. This is their Citizen Kane.

I'm not really a fan of westerns, but I've never seen a western done in this way. It's fresh and exciting. It's also a suspenseful, thrilling film, even though some of the most terrifying and suspenseful scenes don't involve shooting or violence or even much action. There's a scene with Chigurh and a gas station attendant involving a coin toss. I dare you to try to breathe during that scene. At Cannes, there was applause after the scene ended. It's so chilling.

The acting is what really stands out, though. It's just peerless. Tommy Lee Jones expresses so much emotion while barely even moving his face. His quiet drawl conveys so much pain and confusion. His last scene is just breathtaking. I couldn't take my eyes off him. Josh Brolin is kind of getting ignored in discussions of this film, and that's a shame. He really holds his own. He plays Llewelyn as simple, gruff, and determined. There are times when Llewelyn says just one word to himself, and Brolin's timing is impeccable. He's wonderful. Kelly Macdonald plays his wife Carla Jean Moss, and she's so sweet and loyal that it melts my heart. And for a Scot, she does a killer southern accent. Woody Harrelson also does great work with a smaller role.

But let's be honest - Javier Bardem steals this film. He's so ruthless and evil, and always so cool and calm about it, which makes it even scarier. This is one of the best performances I've ever seen in cinema. Period. He better win a best supporting actor Oscar for this role. He's simply unforgettable. It's pure genius.

No Country for Old Men has already cracked my list of favorite films of all time, and that's a pretty big deal. I take my lists very seriously, after all. If Juno is on top of my list for the year, this is definitely right behind it. And really, it's so hard to compare films that are so different. It's impossible to rank them. It's really not about what's better, at least not in this instance. I mean, filmmaking-wise, yeah, No Country for Old Men wins hands-down. It's technically the best made film of the year. And it had an equally powerful effect on me. I couldn't shut up about it for six months after coming back from Cannes. The ending took my breath away, literally. The overall experience was incomparable. But Juno touched me more emotionally, so I guess that's why it's on top. Ugh, it's so hard to say, so I'm just going to stop talking about it for now. I'll come up with my definitive list for the year later.

But back to No Country for Old Men. It's perfect. If there was a word that meant "better than perfect," it would be that. It's cinema as it was intended to be, and it's sure to be an American classic. Just as we watch Citizen Kane in film classes now, I think they'll be showing No Country for Old Men to film students in 50 years (or sooner) as an example of filmmaking at its finest. What would be this film's "Rosebud," though? "Cattlegun," perhaps?

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

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