In keeping with the Texas theme of our trip, PJ and I saw the Coen Brothers’ new film, No Country for Old Men, on Thanksgiving day. It stars Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, and Kelly Macdonald and is based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. Here’s the trailer:

No Country for Old Men is set in Texas in 1980. The movie starts with Brolin’s character, Llewelyn Moss, accidentally stumbling across what looks like a massacre, the results of a drug deal gone wrong in the desert . Investigating the scene more closely, Llewelyn eventually finds a leather case full of money, at least a couple million dollars. When he takes the money, it sets off a violent chain of events that, despite his best efforts, he cannot control or stop.

NCfOM is a great movie, certainly one of the year’s best. Jones plays the local sheriff, Ed Tom Bell. His character grounds the film in common sense and serves as the audience’s way into the film. He also serves as the film’s narrator of sorts. This character isn’t a stretch for Jones; in fact, he’s played this kind of role several times. But he is perfect in this part and watching him is like sitting in on a master-class for actors. This film wouldn’t work if Bell came across as hokey or cocky. Jones imbues him with a fundamental sense of morality that reflects a kind of everyman’s quest to make sense of the senseless world around him.

Brolin is also excellent in the lead role. Moss is mesmerized by the instant wealth he’s found and therefore blinded to the real danger this discovery poses to him and his wife, played by Macdonald. The other blogs, reviews, and Oscar predictions I’ve read about NCfOM don’t emphasize enough just how excellent Brolin is. First his supporting role in American Gangster and now his leading role in this movie make 2007 a great year for him. What I like most about his performance here is that he allows the audience to see just how naturally smart Llewelyn is; it’s this confidence in his own ability that deceives Llewelyn into trying to keep the money. In a sense (though this may be stretching it a bit), Brolin’s performance reminds me of Adrien Brody’s performance in The Pianist. While this is a very different film from that one, both actors are forced to spend larger amounts of their time on screen alone and showing their characters’ innate survival impulses. Brolin does an excellent job as he transitions his character into animalistic survival mode.

A lot of reviews and web sites have predicted that Bardem will be nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role as the homicidal psychopath, Anton Chigurh. Chigurh is trying to recover the lost money and quickly begins tracking Moss’s every move. Bardem is excellent in this role. The moment that stands out most to me is partially in the trailer. One of the first acts of violence we see Chigurh perpetrate is the bloody and horrific murder of a deputy sheriff. As Chigurh strangles the deputy with the chain of the handcuffs he’s wearing and the two men thrash around on the floor, Bardem’s face seems almost orgasmic. It’s a haunting and gruesome scene, one that perfectly establishes the character’s ominous threat to the other characters.

For me, this film is definitely a thinking person’s western. In some ways, it’s a very simple film, straightforward and brutally direct. But it’s also a philosophical film. My reading of it is that it’s all about competing visions of fate. Are all of life’s actions fated, the result of the cumulative choices a person makes over his or her life time, or are they random, the result of just being in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time? A character like Chigurh argues for the former view, almost absolving himself for the murders he commits, since he maintains that his victims’ choices are what has led them to their demise. Moss seems to believe the latter. Sheriff Bell isn’t sure.

I loved the film so much that I bought the novel in the Dallas airport the day after we saw it. I would definitely recommend reading the book before seeing the movie. While I thought the movie was great without reading the book, reading the book explains a few more connections and details that can be a little confusing in the movie.

I was impressed with how well the movie adapts the novel. Indeed, there is very little difference between the two and nearly every word of the book makes it on screen. The Coen brothers have left out a couple of minor scenes and cut back on a little dialogue here and there, but they have remained faithful to the book’s tone, sparseness, and philosophical interests.

The novel is also deceptively straightforward and brutally direct. I don’t think the violence makes as much of an impact in the book, in part because the gore isn’t really McCarthy’s point. I’ve never read a novel by McCarthy before. I found this one to be very accessible and easy to read. I finished it over a couple of days and really enjoyed it. I may even read another of his novels as a result.

To sum up, I loved No Country for Old Men. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year and one of the best books I’ve read in a while. I highly recommend both.

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