No Country for Old Men
Watching the nominations and winners arrive for this year is a bit of a non event really, we're all just looking to see if it will be There Will Be Blood or No Country for Old Men, and so far No Country seems to be the one taking the lead.
So when I heard about the screening I had to go and see it and decide if it was worth all the accolades it was getting, and in the end I was rather shocked.
Not shocked by the content of the film but by the last twenty minutes or so which I felt were far from an Oscar contender no matter how strong the source material.
The rest of the film though most definitely is, and you can see this from the glorious opening moments.
The cinematic shots of the desert look wonderful as Tommy Lee Jones slurring, and often hard to understand, voiceover lets us know his take on the world and how it seems to be becoming stranger and stranger to him.
He talks of a man he captured who he helped send to the electric chair, in court they said that it was a crime of passion, but the man told him there was no passion involved, he’d just always wanted to kill someone and would have killed anyone, and if they let him out he’d do it again.
Rather poignantly he wanders what his ancestors who were also lawmen in this part of the country would have made of all this, and what they would have done, and so the scene is set for the film.
What happens then is we don’t suddenly abandon the slow paced and moody feel filled with gorgeous sprawling landscapes, this actually continues and the film keeps these fantastic visuals and more thoughtful pace throughout, and that’s a wonderful thing.
There are actually two stories to this film, one which I don’t think is very clear until the end, but it is summarised by the title and the opening dialogue. The main story is about a man, played by James Brolin, who finds a rather large sum of drug money being tracked by another man, played by Javier Bardem, who is intent on retrieving the cash. It seems as though this man will stop at nothing and will not hesitate to kill anyone who happens to cross his path.
At the same time the Sheriff is trying to track down both men, one to save himself and his wife, and the other to save those he meets and callously murders.
Well it seemed to me that this was the main plot, however come the end of the film there’s a slightly different feel and meaning, and not something that was altogether well handled. However let me stick with the good stuff for now.
The main story is very powerful and tense, and although the film does step forward at a relaxed pace, there’s never a feeling you’re not enjoying the story, that you’re racing ahead of it, or even that you’re being left behind. The pacing is perfect for the most part and builds a dramatic thriller.
This is a film for adults, now I don’t mean this in any connotation other than it treats the audience with a great deal of respect. Rather than being led and shown the way as Hollywood films tend to do, the Coen’s have let you discover the story as we discover the characters and even then their conversations are often not spelled out. Instead they retain an extremely natural style and for periods of the film there is no dialogue at all, simply because you’re seeing what the characters see and understand events as they do.
I really don’t understand why more Hollywood films don’t treat the audience with this same degree of intelligence. From this film, and many others, it’s so obvious that both entertainment and intelligence can go hand in hand in film-making.
It’s something I love, it gives you a feeling of being involved in the story and of being connected with the characters as you share their journey, their revelations and surprises. No Country for Old Men delivers this in bucket loads.
Apart from the superb locations and wonderful cinematics, the script and the acting is top notch and just helps to pull you into the characters and their story.
Javier Bardem is stunning as the unstoppable and unaffected killer. The relaxed relentlessness of his character was utterly chilling, and rather than devoid of emotion he was given a tiredness and almost disgust with fellow humans. His demeanour matches that of the film and he’s slower and more deliberate than the average evil character, and that’s what sets him apart, he’s not a baddie, this man is just evil and evil to the core.
When he’s talking you can see an emotion behind his eyes, one scene in particular when we see him chatting to the petrol attendant is, at first, confusing. Then as the scene unfolds you can see that the character has something inside him, not a typical uncontrollable rage. This is controlled, careful, and more self assured, and it’s frightening to watch.
I find that many actors who are awarded for creating a moody performance of a character like this tend to do nothing much than skulk around with a bad mood and a frowning face, here there is so much more, and it genuinely is frightening.
Bardem isn’t alone in his strong portrayal though, there’s Josh Brolin who delivers a much more human and accessible character, but at times equally as driven. The opening sequences are entirely his, and he seems so at ease with the character throughout.
There were a couple of surprises, one was Woody Harrelson who I didn’t realise was appearing, his character was interesting but on screen all too briefly. His character provided a little bit of humour, but it did feel that his scenes were a little weak and served merely to heighten the dangerous nature of the killer.
The positive surprise for me was Kelly Macdonald, she was superb. Her performance was very convincing and she was wonderful on screen, I just wonder why she hasn’t had such major roles for so long. I'd be curious to know who realises that she had the broadest Scottish accent from Trainspotting!
Tommy Lee Jones was good, although I did struggle to understand his words with that slurring drawl of his characters accent. His character gave a wry and world weary view of events, perhaps that of the general audience. He had a refreshing and dated look at the world around him and provided a few natural moments of humour.
The cast was excellent and there wasn’t a single fault you could lay at their feet. If there was something to pick up on it would have been that I would have loved to have seen Woody Harrelson’s character a bit more involved in the story. His arrival had promised an interesting twist to events.
When it comes to the violence I had heard that the novel by Cormac McCarthy (Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com) had a harrowing body count, well not so here. The killings are emotionless and efficient, but there aren’t that many which are violently portrayed on screen. They tend to tone down during the film and you see more of the aftermath than the actual killing itself.
At the beginning of the film we see the most brutal and harrowing killing, an event that really does set the character of the killer perfectly for the film, but once we’ve seen a few to show his methods and how they affect him, the camera begins to offer a different angle, then to turn from them, and eventually not to see them at all.
Now while that was working well for most of the film, there came a point where it suddenly seemed against the flow of the story. In fact it was the same point where I felt the whole film suddenly let go of its plot.
After spending so much time from the very beginning with these characters, watching their moves and witnessing their violent meetings, the whole story stopped for a brief moment and we’re shown that the main plot is over, just like that.
This happened at a time when the plot had reached its most dramatic point, something we had been building to for much of the film. The screen blanked just as we realised the dramatic sequences were to come, and when it came back to life we began to gleam that it was all resolved.
I felt confused at first, trying to find my way back to the story, and instead we see by other characters actions what the outcome of the events were.
It’s as though the film had run out of budget or shooting time, or something along those lines which just caused the film to call a halt. At this point all the plot threads just suddenly seem to be tidied up in a neat little bundle within minutes and dropped by the side.
The scenes following this with the Sheriff are very relevant, but are quite quickly cut in comparison with the rest of the film. I was still slightly reeling and felt as though I had leapt out of the story.
The film then returned to the main thread some time after the dramatic events, or it would seem to be, for a brief and very chilling few scenes. This is just before the entire story is once again broadsided and I felt left wondering what had happened and why the film had seemingly leapt so haphazardly.
At the end I was left slightly disheartened that the tale I had become so invested in was so suddenly dropped, and that there seemed to be no care for some of the major characters after a certain point.
I can actually see what was trying to be done here, there were two real storylines, that of the Sheriff and his dealing with modern life and that of the two men
Looking back on the film I think the biggest fault was not completing the main storyline properly, just ending it has left me feeling extremely short changed. Not only that but it had me trying to think about those scenes and where the film was going while characters were delivering their closing moments of the film.
I could honestly say that up until the final fifteen to twenty minutes of the film I was giving this a five star rating and whole heartedly agreeing with all those awards and nominations that the film was receiving, after that moment I'm really not so sure.
It then felt disjointed and scrappy, and I was confused and felt robbed of a storyline that had been built so dramatically.
The rest of the film is deserving of praise though, and all the actors in it all deserve strong mentions. Bardem, Brolin, Macdonald and Jones were all fantastic to watch and Bardem and Brolin in particular were fantastically engaging in their roles.
An Oscar worthy film though? Well it really does depend on how strong There Will Be Blood is, however as a complete package I'm not so sure this quite makes it. Let me say though, that's as a winner of a Best Film Oscar, as a film it's very good, just let down by the ending.