No country for old men

 

The Coen Brothers' latest is a taut and brutal modern western, writes Michael Dwyer.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, Tess Harper, Garret Dillahunt 15A cert, gen release, 122 min  *****

The critical consensus at Cannes last May was that there were two clear front-runners for the Palme d'Or: 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, which won, and No Country for Old Men, which, to general amazement, failed to receive any acknowledgement in the festival awards.

Stephen Frears, who chaired the Cannes jury, prompted further astonishment when he declared: "Someone should have told the Coen brothers' producer not to put the film in competition. It was ridiculous. You're judging films that are made for audiences against films that are not." He added: "But the Coens' film will do really well. It's not a problem." Frears was correct only in predicting that the film will do really well.

One of Coens' most commercially successful films, No Country has collected a slew of awards from US critics' groups and took Golden Globes this week for screenplay and best supporting actor (Javier Bardem), with the prospect of multiple Oscar nominations next Tuesday.

Joel and Ethan Coen are brothers with such a symbiotic relationship that in interviews they regularly finish each other's sentences. They collaborate closely as co-writers and co-directors on all their movies, which they edit together under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes.

The richly accomplished No Country for Old Men is their 12th feature film and only their second (after their remake of The Ladykillers) to be adapted from another source, in this case Cormac McCarthy's 2003 novel, which they bring to the screen with stylistic virtuosity.

This is a tough, arresting pursuit picture with a twisting, unpredictable narrative nimbly revealed at a vigorous pace. The setting is west Texas in 1980, and the body count escalates after the startling strangulation of a young prison officer at the outset. The killer, Anton Chigurh, is one of cinema's most cold-blooded, conscience-free villains, played with sinister gravitas - and with very bad hair - by Bardem at his most adventurous.

Chigurh ruthlessly executes any man or woman standing in his way when he sets out in dogged pursuit of a Vietnam veteran (Josh Brolin), who stumbles upon the scene of a massacre and finds and escapes with a briefcase containing

$2 million. The third participant in the extended chase that ensues is the philosophical sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) on the trail of both men.

Representing the third generation of his family in the force, the sheriff is deeply disillusioned by the alarming lawlessness that has overtaken his country. In this hard-edged modern western, he is the prism through which the film reflects on how the emerging drugs trade has triggered an escalation of crime more violent and amoral than in the era of the country's primitive frontier badlands.

The consequences are powerfully gripping as the Coens ratchet up the tension in a visceral thriller that ranks with their best work (Miller's Crossing, Blood Simple, Fargo). They orchestrate several brilliantly staged set-pieces that should have audiences on the edge of their seats, as will the subtly employed sound effects, and the movie is embellished with their trademark darkly droll humour.

No Country is set against striking natural landscapes and gritty urban locations, consummately photographed by the Coens' regular lighting cameraman, Roger Deakins, and accompanied by a moody, atmospheric score from Carter Burwell, who has composed the music for all their movies.

In a splendid, astutely chosen cast, Brolin seizes on what is by far his meatiest, most demanding role after 20 years in so many undistinguished movies that he had become better known as Barbra Streisand's stepson.