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Monday, October 8, 2007

Film Review: New York Film Festival -- Coen Brothers are Back and Out For Blood

Javier Bardem: The stuff of nightmares

The Javier Bardem that took the stage at the New York Film Festival for the screening of Ethan and Joel Coen's new film No Country For Old Men is not the Javier Bardem who appears in the film. Onscreen in the place of the handsome soft spoken Spaniard was a hulking, gravel voiced, brutal psychopath -- pasty of skin and terrifying in his single-mindedness. The Coens and Bardem have created one of the screen's greatest villains in Anton Chigurh, a man with a bowl haircut and a tank full of compressed air that he uses to shoot closed locks out of their bolts and brains out of people's heads.

His presence threatens to dominate the film but Tommy Lee Jones is there as well, offering up one of his best and most vulnerable performances as a Texas sheriff in the twilight of his career. Josh Brolin is the man both these men want to catch up with, a taciturn Vietnam vet who stumbles across a great deal of cash at a crime scene and makes the bad decision to try to hold onto it. The scene pitting Brolin against a dog hot on his heels, on land and in the water is a future classic.

Based on Cormac McCarthy's novel and set in desolate early 80's west Texas, the Coen's start to crank up the suspense from the opening scene and never let up. There are elements of Hitchcock without crossing over into slavish homage like Brian DePalma and the movie successfully subverts the genre picture formalisms it initially appears to be heading down. The end result may feel somewhat anticlimactic but ultimatly has an existential weight that owes as much to the late Ingmar Bergman as to Howard Hawks. The film is deeply exploratory of the nature of chance and destiny as an unforgettable key scene involving Bardem in a bone-chilling coin toss makes clear.

In tone this is closer to their first film Blood Simple than more recent zany fare like The Big Lebowski though Beth Grant's crusty mother in law character threatens to tilt the film away from it's hardscrabble realist presentation.

As usual for the Coen brothers the look of the film is magnificent, from wide-open vistas to seedy motels and wood panelled trailer homes. Roger Deakin's cinematography is first rate. Also top notch are their vaunted sound design, which in this film is totally devoid of any music or score whatsoever. This brave choice adds to the tension at every turn. The Coens also show their usual flair for getting great supporting performances -- in this case from Woody Harrelson as a cocky bounty hunter, Stephen Root, Barry Corbin and Kelly MacDonald.

Here's the trailer:

No Country For Old Men is among the best films the Coen brothers have done, and that's high praise indeed. One of the year's best, it gets five out of five air tanks:

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