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Is This A Great Country Or What? 

Giving thanks for a bountiful film crop

The Coen Brothers have always been known for the ease with which they've jumped from genre to genre -- screwball comedy with Raising Arizona, gangster saga with Miller's Crossing, neo-film noir with Blood Simple, etc. -- but with their superb new picture, No Country for Old Men, they seem to be tapping from various wells at once. Certainly, their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel smacks of a contemporary Western through its wide-open settings and signals a crime thriller via its "law and disorder" plotline. But may I add the classification of monster movie to the mix? That might seem like a stretch, but as I watched Javier Bardem's seemingly unstoppable Anton Chigurh shuffle his way through the picture, killing left and right without remorse, I realized that it's been a long time since I've seen such an unsettling creature on the screen.

Chigurh is just one of the several fascinating characters occupying screen time in a delirious drama that in its finest moments echoes such classics as Psycho, Touch of Evil and Chinatown, not only in its intricate and unpredictable plot structure but also in its look at an immoral world in which chance and fate battle for the upper hand and in which evil is as tangible a presence as sticks and stones. Chigurh, who finds it easier to murder an innocent bystander than to crack a smile, is described by another character as operating by his own set of principles, and only in a topsy-turvy world could a fiend such as this be described as principled -- and, more disturbingly, possibly even deserve the designation.

Chigurh spends the film, set in 1980 Texas, on the trail of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a cowboy who stumbles upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong in the desert (lots of guns, lots of spilled blood, lots of corpses) and walks away from the scene with a satchel containing $2 million in cash. But a sum that large isn't about to be written off by the crime bosses, and so here comes Chigurh (working for an outfit independent from the Mexican dealers) to take care of business. The cat-and-mouse chase between Chigurh and Moss is enough to propel any standard narrative, yet tossed into the mix is Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a weary sheriff who, baffled and deflated by the wickedness that has come to define his country, nevertheless trudges from crime scene to crime scene, hoping to save Moss and stop Chigurh.

As we've come to expect from a Coens feature, interesting players can be found around every corner -- there's also Moss' baby-faced wife (Kelly MacDonald), kept in the dark by a husband whose increasingly frantic behavior threatens to put them both at risk, and Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), a jocular bounty hunter who functions as a walking encyclopedia when it comes to detailing Chigurh's crimes against humanity. All of the performances are exceptional, yet this is clearly Bardem's picture. So magnetic and full of life in his Oscar-nominated turn in Before Night Falls, he takes the opposite stance here, portraying Chigurh as an emotionally withdrawn individual whose only defining trait (outside of his imaginative choice of weapon) is the whimsical manner in which he occasionally allows a potential victim the opportunity to call a coin toss to decide their fate -- a quirk best exemplified in an extraordinary scene opposite a gas station owner (Gene Jones) that's terrifying to watch.

No Country for Old Men isn't the first great movie certain to have its ending criticized even by many who enjoyed the rest of the picture (Apocalypse Now also springs to mind), but admittedly, the events of the final half-hour are occasionally murky enough -- in either execution or intent -- that confusion might indeed develop among many viewers. Yet love it or hate it, accept it or debate it, it's the only proper conclusion for a movie as uncompromising as this one.

IF I'M STILL around at the age of 83, I doubt I'll even be able to successfully navigate the remote control. Yet here's the great veteran director Sidney Lumet (Twelve Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict, and on and on and on), who, just two years after winning a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy, has made an impressive picture that's earning him his best reviews in ages. And for at least three-quarters of the way, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead deserves those stellar notices, as it shapes up to emerge as one of the best films of the year. But like a long-distance runner who miscalculates his own endurance level, it falters at the very end, with a two-pronged wrap-up that disappoints with both barrels.

Yet this isn't the fault of Lumet as much as first-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson, who otherwise contributes a compelling script that adds a tantalizing twist to the standard heist flick by also making it a personal family drama. Philip Seymour Hoffman heads the powerhouse cast as Andy, who, sensing that money might be the way to save his faltering marriage (to Marisa Tomei's Gina), talks his weak-willed younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke, never better) into taking part in the robbery of a jewelry store -- the one owned by their parents (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris). Andy envisions it as one of those victimless crimes -- use a toy gun, rob the place when there are no customers, the owners recoup their losses via insurance, etc. -- but we all know what happens to the best-laid plans.

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