17 January, 2008

Word of Mouth: "No Country for Old Men"

A man stumbles on a drug deal gone wrong where everyone is dead. He takes the money but a ruthless psychopath has been hired to recover it.

No Country for Old Men is a thriller that thwarts genre expectations and remains resolutely indie in sensibility despite the audience pleasing thrills and spills. Read between the lines of that, I won’t be more explicit.

It's adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy by the Coen Brothers and follows the events of a drug deal gone wrong from the point of view of someone who finds the money (Moss), a psychopath hired to recover the money (Chigurh [pronounced like 'sugar']) and a sheriff investigating what's going on (Bell).

The sheriff begins the story with a voice-over but he doesn't drive the story as such. I admit I was disorientated for a moment expecting the sheriff to be more involved like in a more conventional policier. But that was my assumption rather than the movie being a genre mash-up.

I do think the title's crap but it does relate to the theme if you pay attention to the sheriff's arc. It’s set at the beginning of the 1980s where good manners were fading away and “greed is good” began to hold sway.

Sheriff Bell mentions at the beginning being bewildered at a young man killing for fun; Chigurh’s actions raise this confusion to a whole new level.

I've never read the novel but there is nothing in the film that doesn't seem vintage Coen brothers, which is why, I guess, they were attracted to the story in the first place. There's the twistyness, the dark humour, beautiful visuals and the amazing dialogue. But, as lauded as the Coen’s dialogue is, also look out for the effective way they use silence.

They give us a nail-biting, edge of the seat cat and mouse chase but it's practically a character study as the cat and mouse, the major and minor characters aren't two-dimensional sketches but more complex.

In writing we usually devote our energies to the main character as they are usually a version of us but what makes this film brilliant for me is the antagonist and the detail with the minor characters. There are two scenes early on which capture this, the Desert Aire office one which is short but very effective and the longer Gas Station/Grocery scene.

Without giving anything away, we know Chigurh is a bastard but the people he confronts don’t and treat him as normal. They meet him with their everyday attitude which might be “take no nonsense” or “very friendly”. Too often, in both unproduced screenplays and produced films, those minor characters aren’t developed enough even to have an attitude or point of view and so they can't help but drag the project down - however well conceived the main characters are.

I admit I am in two minds about certain novellish aspects of the story but there is no doubt that No Country for Old Men is a genuine classic and so is highly recommended.

Also highly recommended is watching the film and then reading the screenplay. It's such a fast read and even though you know what happens you can't help but be caught up in it again.

Official site


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