Smile Politely

Boardman’s Picks a Winner: No Country For Old Men

For my money, Boardman’s Art Theatre is the best place in Central Illinois to see a movie. They’re not corporate; they’re down the street from a half dozen great bars; they still have some of those pre-cup-holder seats; they serve coffee and gourmet chocolate and only slightly stale popcorn. If Boardman’s decided it would dedicate the remainder of its days to showing Pauly Shore films, I’d probably still go. That said, Boardman’s isn’t always on point with their selection of films or their timing (I remember going to Chicago to see Almodóvar’s Volver because Boardman’s wasn’t going to show it for a month after its American release.) Fortunately, Boardman’s has managed to secure a timely release of the Coen brothers’ new and possibly best film to date, No Country for Old Men.

To put No Country for Old Men into a genre would do a disservice to the film. If you want to highlight the constant tension as the hit man (in a memorably disturbing performance by Javier Bardem) tracks down a hunter (Josh Brolin) who came across a botched drug deal and absconded with the money, then sure, call it a thriller. If you want to focus on the slew of murders and apparent lack of narrative justice, then call it a crime film. If the setting is enough — the parched landscape of west Texas — or the fact that the film’s based on a Cormac McCarthy novel, then call it a western, though certainly a modern western. Whatever genre you want to cram it into, No Country for Old Men manages to be entertaining, disturbing and philosophical in ways that transcend labels.

In fact, the film is reminiscent of a good novel, in that it ultimately proves to be less interested in following a series of plot points than in exploring the nature of chance, death, place and time. The hit man’s penchant to philosophize with his victims and a prominent scene devoted to the old sheriff’s (Tommy Lee Jones) seemingly inane dreams is a testament to the Coen brothers’ desire to produce a film with more meat than standard Hollywood fare.

Whatever the story, the Coens always offer something different — the pregnant homicide detective in Fargo, the robe-wearing Dude in The Big Lebowski, head-covered-in-pantyhose child snatcher in Raising Arizona — that makes their films such a delight on repeat viewings. No Country for Old Men is equally rich in such moments, though it’s the darkest and least comical of their work (with the possible exception of Blood Simple). Through its simple plot, in which all the characters want essentially the same things (first the stash of drug money and second to stay alive), the Coen brothers roll out such memorable flourishes as a hit man with soft, boyish hair (in contrast with his cold demeanor and angular features), a compressed air canister that the hit man uses to shoot the center out of door locks, and an assortment of murders equal to The Godfather in both variety and viciousness. Watching a richly detailed film like No Country For Old Men makes the rest of Hollywood seem so fake.

The other noticeable arena where the Coen brothers depart from traditional Hollywood is in their depiction of regional America. When most of Hollywood seems content to either homogenize or stereotype America’s regional differences, the Coen brothers’ approach is both loving and slightly satirical. No Country For Old Men does for west Texas what Fargo did for Minnesota and North Dakota. This can be seen in the way the camera lingers over the dusty landscape, in the colorful people and equally colorful language (“That boy’s got some hard bark on him,” the sheriff says of the hit man). And though many of the people in the region are poor and live in trailer parks and speak with a drawl, the film does not treat them as stupid or ignorant. In fact, the characters in No Country for Old Men are in turn ingenious, resourceful, philosophical, friendly, capable of great good and, like so many people, equally capable of great evil.

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