Felt like I had to write something about a movie; sorry.

No Country for Old Men

***I am going to ruin a film right in front of your eyes so watch out for spoilaz***

I've been trying to catch up on some of the movies I missed last year; luckily, the OSCAR NOMS meant that five of them showed up again at a theater near me (although I don't think There Will Be Blood would have opened until now anyway; didn't see that yet). This is the newest Coen Bros. project, based on a 2005 Cormac McCarthy novel I haven't read; I hear it's very faithful. I saw it after Michael Clayton, the recent George Clooney vehicle that's also up for Best Picture.

It's maybe worth putting the pair together. They've got exactly the same type of opening scene, for example: a monologue by a deep-thinking, voice-of-reason character, delivered over scattered shots of telling environments. In No Country, it's Tommy Lee Jones' world-weary sheriff, a good man (as we'll discover) talking about his life as a force for law in this decaying, violent world, and the young killer he once sent to death. His quiet words are matched by dusty landscapes - words and images collude to establish a whole of plain, violent potential.

In contrast, Michael Clayton opens with the stammering, jittery confession of Tom Wilkinson's madman lawyer, sputtering out dramatic disclosures and vivid descriptions of his place in a torturous legal society. As he yelps, we see only the cool, dim halls of his law firm; the predominant effect is one of simple conflict, of one man loudly tearing away the curtain of a place that would otherwise seem civil.

These openings underscore the difference between the two movies. Michael Clayton is fairly entertaining, but its stabs at high-mindedness are shallow, and sit awkwardly in its thriller framework. I understand that flawed super-lawyer George Clooney's quest to recover his soul and overcome amoral isolation and all that is supposed to be a deep-thinking character study that just happens to involve muder, madness, secret documents, covert investigations, narrow escapes, big money and an Evil Corporation that's poisoning America's Farmers. That's pretty hard to miss, given the many shots of Clooney's soulful eyes, and the surplus of overtly metaphorical conversations between Our Hero and various characters. Why, Clooney even gets to stare at several highly meaningful horses, for the sake of symbol and poetry, I think! Two times!

But themes are screamed at us, often; a confrontation between Clooney and some rich guy he's trying to help out of a jam is sticky with pacing, chattering acting!, climaxing with no less than the man's wife smashing a whiskey glass to alert us of her husband's futility. I liked Tilda Swinton's twitchy performance as the ambitious in-house counsel for the Evil Corporation, but that doesn't make her any less a simplistic villain (and one saddled with the supplementary role of wicked career woman to Merritt Wever's simple, salt-of-the-earth farm gal/font of inspiration for tortured male lawyers), ready to be knocked down when George Clooney saves the day with wisecracks and revelations and surprises and swarming police - but he still frowns through the closing credits, because this is a serious film, gang, with serious speeches and serious horses.

Plus, there's a scene where George Clooney has an important talk with his young son, and 'the sad music' plays. Just like in Full House.

No Country for Old Men also marries insight and suspense and melodrama and other things, but the Coens form a steady, complimentary whole. Josh Brolin is a Vietnam vet turned hunter/scavenger near the US/Mexico border. The time is the early '80s; the film is more than happy to play up period notions of ideals giving way to material greed (or so it's typically remembered), along with Sheriff Jones' worries of increasing criminal brutality. As such, Brolin happens upon a litter of corpses one day, the product of a drug deal gone awry, and winds up making off with a bag full of cash. He quickly finds himself on the run from dangerous folks, foremost among them murderous Javier Bardem.

I didn't know what to make of Bardem at first. He initially seems like a cartoon, with an atrocious pageboy haircut sprawled atop his head, and condescending speeches on causality creeping from his smirk. Sometimes he decides who lives and dies with the flip of a coin. I won't need to explain the implications of his weapon of choice: a cattlegun. But crucial lines are added to his character sketch. He respects active personalities, and loves to torment passive sorts. He fancies himself a simple agent of fate, beyond moralty, revealing total self-regard. More than anything else, he is prideful, and seems to act through a perverse set of values.

Being an apparent master tracker/assassin, he's been sent to get that money back. A game of cat-and-mouse ensues with the unexpectedly resourceful Brolin, their bloody struggle gradually growing to entrap Brolin's good lady wife, her bitchy mother, several drug dealers, a Texas titan of finance, Mexican gangsters, a succession of hotel clerks and shopkeepers, special guest Woody Harrelson (as: a rival money hunter), various hapless motorists, several dogs, and, eventually, Sheriff Tommy Lee Jones, although he mostly listens and observes at first.

It's sturdy, suspenseful work, with a keen use of silence and bursts of gory violence. And as it widens its scope, actions and words alike begin to form a portrayal of fluid morals and human flaws - a recurring motif sees Brolin peeling bills out of his magic bag to get what he needs, while Bardem orchestrates grand speeches and acts of intrigue to get where he's going. The former, wounded, bribes a passing group of drunken kids to get him a shirt, right off one of their backs. The latter is often considered insane because he believes his principles, gross as they are, happen to be more important than financial gain. He's called a ghost; he seems possessed with superhuman control.

The characters become fascinatingly rendered, and believably planted in their environment. That's fortunate, since the film's thriller coating slowly dissolves as Jones, a man reluctant to get caught up in the situation at all, attains character primacy. As soon as Jones leaps into a 'hero' role, the suspense plot abruptly resolves itself: Brolin is shot dead by a crew of characters who just entered the movie about ten minutes before, and the money vanishes. It's sort of implied that Bardem recovers the funds, but we don't know. At this point, the conflict becomes totally philosophical; Jones and Bardem never meet, but both men are driven by values, played out in their private final scenes. This structure suggests the vitality of philosophy beyond simple moral tests and events, and the ongoing crawl of life beyond noteworthy adventures (and suspense plots!).

This willfully anticlimactic construct hasn't worked for all viewers, but I found it to be a canny extension of the Coen's focus on landscapes -- what endures if not the land itself? -- and detailed character motivations (which may well be a simple translation of McCarthy's work). Many die as a result of Brolin's and Bardem's chase, but what are the implications for the ones who survive, and the things they've come to represent? It seems, sadly, that they must continue to live.

Bardem's final scene is a brilliant mix of subtle play on his established traits, and crashing, almost cosmic retribution. He's just finished polishing off his latest victim, after an especially long bout of bemused detatchment and killer coin-filpping. He's driving away, eyes fluttering from side to side; we've already seen how careful he is, what with his paranoid mannerisms. But suddenly, perhaps because he's so busy looking out for danger, he's sideswiped by an oncoming car.

Tumbling out of the wreck, his arm badly broken, he encounters a pair of kids. The sequence mirrors Brolin's encounter with the drunks earlier. Hearing sirens approaching, Bardem grimaces, offering bloody money to one of the kids for his shirt. He's been hurt before, but never quite unexpectedly. He has no words about fate, he only has money to offer. We've seen him pick Brolin's buckshot out of his leg before on his own; now, has to ask one of the kids to tie the shirt for him to form a sling. He hobbles away down the street, and out of the movie.

In this one scene, the Coens deftly, completely undercut the extra-human nature of their villain, now that a plot in which a supervillain is needed has ended. It's not the first connection made between him and Brolin -- for example, they both say "hold still" while hunting prey, Brolin a beast and Bardem a human -- but it's the first in which the connection is made to emphasize Bardem's humanity, after all the build given to him. This is how the Coens mark Bardem as truly, totally awful: by showing him in the muck. It isn't even so much that he killed all those people; it's that he's a horrible, pretentious shithead who merely knows how to do his job in a better-than-average manner. He's no ghost. He can talk and talk all he wants, but he's still going to wear that fucking haircut. He is ridiculous coming in, and the Coens ensure he is ridiculous going out.

This is his 'defeat,' in that the screen finally allows us to see him as a compromised human. It's perhaps the only resolution that matters for a character like him. He is, in the end, a creature in this world, and our final look at him hobbling away, pained and broken, is damning. Even if he completed his mission to get the money -- and the Coens don't even allow him that certainty -- the implication, I think, is that he will wander the bad country forever, unsatisfied, until his arrival in Hell. Like the boy Mr. Jones spoke of at the top.

Whether the lawman will arrive there himself, in spite of all his dignity, is the true ambiguity of the film. He too, is only a man, and his viewpoint is undercut, if more gently, when an even older man reminds him that the darkening of society he sees is merely an illusion of age - the violence has always been there. That's why the country is not for old men; it never has been, although the country and men endure.

But Jones has retired, cut himself off from the country, away from the catchy web of killings he's stepped through. If there is any major theme, it is that humans are flawed, and can never know enough, although the 'good' ones can divorce themselves from aspects of the land. At the beginning of the film, Jones admits to being part of the world. At the end, he's woken up, though the dreams linger above the steady dirt.