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No Country for Old Men – A Disappointing Comeback for the Coen Brothers. 

By Robert Garver

          Over a decade ago, Joel and Ethan Coen created Fargo, a small-town crime thriller set in the Midwest.  Since then, most of their films have flopped.  Now they have created No Country for Old Men, a small-town crime thriller set around the Texas/Mexico border.  This film is almost too similar to Fargo, with the most noticeable difference being the change in bad accents. 

           The main characters in Fargo were a cop (Frances McDormand, who won an Oscar for her performance), a scheming Schmo who quickly found himself over his head (William H. Macy), and a pair of career criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare).  The main characters in No Country for Old Men are a cop (Tommy Lee Jones), a scheming Schmo who quickly find himself over his head (Josh Brolin), and a career criminal (Javier Bardem).  It’s not the same format, there’s only one career criminal instead of two. 

           The plot of this film is that down-on-his-luck hunter Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) stumbles upon a pile of dead bodies in the desert.  Apparently a major drug deal has gone bad and everyone has killed everyone.  The $2 million that was supposed to change hands is just waiting to be taken.  Moss grabs the cash and, thus getting himself in over his head.

It doesn’t take long for violent bad guy Anton Chigurh (Bardem) to figure out that Moss is on the run with the money that he wants for himself.  No matter, Chigurh’s best skills are stalking and killing.  It’s only a matter of time before he catches up to Moss, kills him, and gets the money. 

           Local sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Jones) figures out both that Moss has the money and Chigurh is after him.  Unlike Moss, Bell knows how dangerous Chigurh can be, having investigated multiple Chigurh killings.  Bell is soon after both of them, trying to save Moss and stop Chigurh.

          Bell is constantly lurking in the background, but the main conflict in the film is between Moss and Chigurh.  The Coens set up some great scenes where the two play cat-and-mouse games with each other.  One scene in particular where Moss is on one side of a door and can only listen to Chigurh on the outside is especially well-done.  A series of shootouts between the two are also appropriately exciting, owning mainly to the way the Coens always make the gunshots startling, even when they are expected. 

            Despite the powerful chases and action sequences, the story for No Country for Old Men is a mess.  We never know Chigurh knew about the money, or how he finds his victims half the time (at first this is explained with a magnetic tracker hidden in the money’s case, but Moss finds and destroys it at about the halfway mark).  His sole purpose in the film is to be a bad guy, with the all-too-easy motivation of wanting the money.  The Coens sort of make this lack of character development up to Bardem by giving him a number of great bits of dialogue (a hostile conversation with a gas station attendant where Chigurh challenges him to a coin toss will no doubt go down as one of the year’s most memorable scenes), but somehow his presence always seems unnecessary and forced. 

              Then there is the matter of the film's disappointing ending.  The film is unclear which characters are alive and which are dead, which ones are injured and which are healthy, which ones have succeeded and which have failed.  And it cuts off so soon after the end of a sentence that it brings back unpleasant memories of the Sopranos finale.  As soon as the credits started rolling at the screening I attended, people were whining, “That’s how it ends?” 

             For about the first half of No Country for Old Men, it looks like the Coen brothers have equaled the magic of the excellent Fargo.  But then the action becomes ridiculous, the plot points become murkier, the dialogue becomes more grating, and the film falls off its previously hard-earned pedestal.  In the long run, the film probably won’t go down as just another Coen brothers flop, but it won’t be as well-regarded as their work from the early 90s, especially Fargo.  

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