Sometimes the judgment of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences leaves much to be desired. That appears to be the case this year. The motion picture No Country for Old Men somehow won Best Picture. Either 2007 was a terrible year for films in general or the 6000+ members of AMPAS were high on something. This movie is certainly suspenseful but unworthy of its Best Picture status. In fact, it does not come close.
It is not that this movie is bad. It is just that the Coen Brothers have done much better work that has garnered far fewer awards. So what is so special about No Country for Old Men that it receives Best Picture when its far better cousin, the 1996 Fargo, did not. (Fargo did win two Oscars, for Best Screenplay and for Best Actress in a Leading Role.)
The story takes place in West Texas in 1979. Hollywood has short shrifted this is a part of the country. The Coen Brothers at least do us a favor by giving that area of the country its overdue screen time. As you might expect it is desolate yet pretty in its own way. If it were not for its many amoral residents, it might be a nice place to retire. You could certainly stretch your retirement dollars with all the illegal immigrants running around. The Coen Brothers portray that part of Texas as half-lawless. Unfortunately, its citizens do not give the sheriff much money, so it is hard to rustle up a posse to track down psycho killers like Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). One thing for sure: if you find two million dollars in drug payoff money surrounded by a bunch of dead or bleeding people at a remote location in West Texas, you had best resist the temptation to abscond with the loot. You do not want Chigurh to track you down because he is focused, relentless and utterly amoral.
Male hunk Josh Brolin plays Llewelyn Moss, the taciturn guy who first discovers the drug loot. Apparently, drug deals gone badly are par for the course out in West Texas. He does have enough sense to send his wife Kelly Jean to visit her mother, and to make sure she takes a Greyhound bus to get there. To a killer like Chigurh, tracking his wife and mother in law down is straightforward stuff. Llewelyn’s life quickly becomes one of a man constantly on the run. In Chigurh’s nutty mind, anyone he is intimately involved with is fair game for murder. Llewelyn has his Texas wiles to give him strength and his stoical nature to carry around two million dollars as if it were no big deal. Nonetheless, from Chigurh’s trail of carnage he quickly infers that he will be dead meat unless somehow he can kill him first.
Tommy Lee Jones plays Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, the old man of the movie’s title. Jones is an excellent actor. His quirky and craggy face makes him a natural for the part of sheriff of this remote part of the country. As sheriff, he has the dubious privilege of bringing Chigurh to justice. Given Chigurh’s innate ability to find people and plug them with slugs from his compressed air cattle gun, viewers can sensibly ask how much time the sheriff has left on his life clock. It is time for the sheriff to take a sudden retirement, if he knows what is good for him. He should definitely stay far away from people carrying around oxygen canisters.
I am not sure why Javier Bardem won an Oscar for his role. His part required him to be a one dimensional, slightly philosophical psycho killer and little else. Similarly, the men in this movie are too low key by nature to break into much of a sweat, even when death is very close. This results in a movie that is far less suspenseful than it could be.
In fact, Coen Brother movies are becoming increasingly formulaic. You know there will be one or two characters that are exceptionally odd in some way, and Bardem gets to play him this time. Surrounding the odd character is a menagerie of regular scruffs like us trying to deal with the weirdness of the events happening to them. A Coen Brothers movie is like looking at the world through a distorted glass. Few do it better but their formula may have become played out in No Country for Old Men.
Some would argue (and I am one of them) that the movie is ruined by Sheriff Bell’s rambling philosophical dialog at the end of the movie. As best I can figure out it is a bunch of nonsense. It is unclear exactly who is still alive at the end of the movie including Chigurh. If he is then Sheriff Bell will not have long to enjoy his retirement.
No Country for Old Men is certainly not a bad movie and it will engage your attention easily enough. Its violence is realistically portrayed, but it was not too bloody for my normally squeamish stomach. In short, it is average Coen Brother fare, worthy of renting but nothing all that special, with an ending that is likely to disappoint.
3.0 on my 4.0 scale.