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No Country for Old Men - The return of the Coen brothers

Monday 4 February 2008, by Paul Kirkness

The Coen brothers are back. And this time with a dark and violent film...

Clearly, the Coen brothers have developed a great talent for moving from style to style. After the immensely successful The Big Lebowski which was released ten years ago, Ethan and Joel Coen must have realized they were standing before a wall. Indeed, how could they ever match the genius of such a crazy, hilarious and genius film? The truth is that, from The Hudsucker Proxy through Fargo to Lebowski, the brothers from Minneapolis had gone from sparkle of genius to fountains of brilliance.

Succeeding years, in my mind, were a slight disappointment - O Brother, Where Art Though? kept with the craziness and The Man Who Wasn’t There played successfully with inspirations from the past but the sparkle had gone. Not to mention Intolerable Cruelty and the appalling Ladykillers remake which, starring Tom Hanks, only succeeds in begging the question: “Why???”.

Still, it has to be recognized that in the Coen family, nothing is ever the same again. They move with ease from one genre to another and they chose their actors well. So, when I heard that the brothers had joined forces again and that this time, they were experimenting with something more violent which would have Javier Bardem as a psycho, I was very tempted to run to the nearest movie theatre and to sit myself down to what would have to be interesting. And interesting is what it was... Intriguing, weird, violent, distressing is also what it was.

Anyone expecting comedy will leave the cinema shrieking and gasping for air because, more than anything else, this film is suffocating. Set on the border between Mexico and Texas, it narrates the story of a young man, played by Josh Brolin, who is the witness to a crime scene - Mexican drug dealers have shot themselves up in a failed deal. All but one Mexican are dead and the last man standing is alive but barely. When Brolin’s character finds the money, he leaves the man in the desert, wounded and desperate for water. It is the guilt that he feels later that day that will parachute this Vietnam veteran into a dark world of gruesome murder, drug-money and transnational violence. All of this, along with the Coen brothers’ talent for directing creates a general atmosphere which is leads us to pant along with the characters themselves as they wander through harsh sunshine and freezing nights...

Bardem’s character is nasty - I mean, really nasty - and he fills the viewer with anguish at each appearance. He plays with human lives on the toss of a coin and uses a cattle killing device (a bolt pistol) to murder his victims... He contrasts neatly with the stiff Tommy Lee Jones, an honest and ageing sheriff who finds it hard to understand what is happening to the world around him. How can the violence have escalated so drastically? What is it linked to? All these questions, he asks himself and friends around him. Is this country, still a country for old men?

A very dark movie which will leave no-one untouched...


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