No Country For Old Men - Cinema Review
It is inevitable that any new movie by the Coen Brothers will be referred to as a ‘Coen Brother’s Movie’ and thus compared to the rest of their gamut. Phrases like ‘a return to form’ and ‘as good as Fargo’ have peppered the critical reaction to No Country For Old Men, along with a hefty tip that this is this year's Best Film as far as Mr. OSCAR is concerned.
The problem with this is twofold. Firstly it is impossible to review the film on its own merits; it simply must be compared and secondly the Coen’s output is so varied that exactly what is a Coen Brother’s Movie and is this one in the truest sense of the word?
No Country For Old Men is not as good as The Big Lebowski. There it’s done. Apart from obviously… it’s not because No Country… is most similar to Fargo (which it probably is as good as) and least similar to O’ Brother Where Art Thou (which it isn’t as good as).
Anyway, comparisons, (largely) aside No Country For Old Men is a good stab at a neo-western which succeeds in some areas and fails in others. It is not the Coen’s best film and although it probably will win Best Film at the OSCARs it is not as good as offerings in previous years.
The main criticism of the film is its pace… which is slow… achingly slow. There’s no whirlwind tour here a la O’ Brother..., there’s little of the quick-fire witty dialogue a la 'Lebowski, there is however buckets of tangible tension. The pace is cranked right back to a crawl to accentuate the passing of life and time which signify the movie’s main concerns. Apart from the arrival of death (Javier Bardem’s monster Anton Chigurh) life passes slowly in these parts with sporadic moments of violence to liven it up. These moments however are too thinly spaced between the build-ups of tension and the picaresque scene-setting of everyday life. With certain films a slow pace can be a blessing but with the Coen’s it just serves to show how good the film could have been if it had been faster, wittier, smarter. The all-too-brief arrival of Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) hints at a genuine masterpiece of Coen-esque wit, hiding beneath silent shots of pasture but is, in the end, horrendously under-used.
When the pace does quicken however, it really quickens, as will audiences’ heartbeats any time it is even hinted at that Chigurh may be about to appear on screen. Bardem is utterly fantastic and his man-monster will go down as one of cinema’s scariest creations. Even when he is unseen Chigurh pushes the film along forcing Brolin’s simple scavenger to run faster, Lee-Jones’ old-time sheriff to think harder. In a rare moment of pure Coen wit Wells replies to the question of how bad Chigurh is with the throwaway comment ‘compared to what? The Bubonic plague?’ It’s an apt summation. The only thing that stops death is blind luck and so it is for Chigurh who operates on a code above and beyond any moral one that might govern the other characters.
Somewhere here there’s a fantastic story and an engaging pursuit across much of Texas. The themes of life and death, progress and stasis are dealt with well but the actors that deal with them are given short-shrift. Brolin is miss-cast and under-performs at key moments, Lee-Jones and Harrelson are under-used and hardly developed, Stephen Root as an apparently important character isn’t even given a name, let alone a reason for existence. In all No Country… is more of a disappointment than a success. There are elements of classic Coen material here, even if they, and us, may not be entirely sure what ‘Classic Coen’ is anymore.