There is this quote about Franz Liszt that someone said after hearing him perform.
“Liszt fears God but loves the Devil.” I kept thinking of this line throughout the Cohen Brother’s latest and greatest film, “No Country for Old Men.”
The gist: A Mexican drug deal goes wrong in the desert and everybody kills each other. The man who escapes with the money only makes it a mile away and dies under a tree. Josh Brolin plays the protagonist, and stumbles onto scene of desert carnage while hunting. He finds the money and claims it. Enter evil. Javier Bardem plays Anton Chigurh and looks like some apache warrior who has returned from the grave. Scary and fascinating. Like all great villains, Chigurh needs a unique weapon to kill. Chigurh uses a tank of compressed air that farmers use to kill cattle. It blasts a metal cylinder into their heads and whips it back again. Chigurh spends the film tracking Josh down like a slow-killing cancer. And that’s all the plot I think I’ll give you. Go see it.
Overall impression: There are so many astonishing things about this film that it is hard to find a jumping point. Sort of like the cat thrown into the box with a bunch of mice and tries to paw them all and catches none.
Acting: For starters –
Tommy Lee Jones. Crap, what an actor. And what a voice. That opening line is chilling and magnificently delivered. Some people have the gift when it comes to narration, Morgan Freeman (Shawshank), Anthony Hopkins (anything)… they are born with voices that are nothing short of hypnotic. His opening narration sets us up for the fascinating evil that is to come. His timing is that of an artist. He’s also blessed with getting to read fantastic writing. (McCarthy… nice to meet you, I’m your newest fan. I shall be running to the store to buy your books now.) In this film we find Tommy Lee in the role he was born to play: An old, tired, frayed, calloused, bitter, humorous, lonely, a little confused, but completely trustworthy sheriff. (He’s played that in other roles, but NEVER like this, tinged with fear and so vulnerable.) He is humanity, surveying its own atrocities. He is the good who not only fights the bad, but hates, fears and is ashamedly fascinated by it.
SPOILER ALERT! Skip this next paragraph if you don’t want to know an important surprise.
Josh Brolin was great as well as the protagonist. He is our greedy side. He is us on the verge of temptation and fault. Finally, his greed and arrogance kills him. And it comes from the worst way: cheating on his wife. His end is a post-modern twist that I actually LIKED. The hero is flawed, and is killed for his flaw. His love of money, and his inability to stay faithful ultimately are his end. It was one of my favorite moments in the film. I was totally caught off guard.
The Villain. Good lord what a villain. I don’t think there possibly has been a better villain in a movie since Darth Vader. Most villains these days are irrational, grotesque, monsters who we only fear because we don’t want to get chopped up or shot, caught off guard by them while we are on the crapper or asleep in bed.
Great villains are those who embody evil, but are equipped with such rationale, power and character that you love and hate at the same time. He is pure evil, but as we all know, the purest evil is nothing less than enticing. Pure evil plays virtuosically upon what is good and true, giving us all the smells of the good through a magnified sensory lens, but then when we take a bite, we are starving. (Read Nietzsche’s The Antichrist for a taste of what the devil would sound like if he wrote a book.)
The villain in No Country for Old Men is principled. He is powerful and resourceful. He is hypnotic and scary as hell. So hypnotic, you don’t want him to be good. Unlike other villains, he isn’t crazy at all. He loves himself above all things and loves his principles. He even gives some a chance to live. But he does it only as purely evil person would do; he leaves it to chaos. He flips a coin, and lets chance decided their fate. In this way, he is the ultimate enemy of free will. He mocks it. And man loves and hates free will. We want God to do everything for us and we hate screwing up, but immediately after our prayers, and promises of surrender, we turn around and to fight God to the death for that great, miraculous thing as complex and awe-inspiring as the starry sky above us – choice.
The cinematography and editing was stunning. Intense action sequences, suspenseful moments that would have made Hitchcock bite his nails, and cold and beautiful moments of repose. Like when both Chigurh and Tommy Lee sit in the same spot on a couch at different times and stare at their reflection into a television monitor, and drink from the same milk jug. That was just cool as crap.
In my opinion, the Cohen Brothers have established themselves among the great filmmakers of all time. Fargo opened the door; No Country for Old Men pushed them through it and into the front row.
The Cohen Brothers paint a broad strokes across each of their films, whether it be the consistency of color in O Brother Where art Thou, to “Okay Then” and thematic transformation of the music in Raising Arizona, (One of my all-time favorite flicks. See scene where H.I. is being chased through grocery store. Listen to music throughout that scene. Just hilarious genius.) And they’ve caught hell because of it as their peers and critics have called it affected. But here the broad stroke is genius: the sparseness of a film score. A hard thing to pull off. But they did it. The score was hardly noticeable, if even there. I can't remember. The effect was chilling.
Verdict: Not a cuddly date movie, but movie I will watch many, many more times and learn something new about myself every time. That is, when it comes out on DVD 'cause seein' a movie in NYC is TWELVE FRIGGIN BUCKS A POP. Talk about evil...