Saturday, November 24, 2007

Coen Brothers Put McCarthy's Bleak Border Vision on the Silver Screen

Regular readers of AltTulsa will recall our interest in the Tennessee/Texas novelist Cormac McCarthy, best known for his Border Trilogy, novels that explore the rugged and violent life along the Texas-Mexico border.

Now the Coen brothers, filmakers Ethan and Joel, have put a McCarthy novel on the big screen with considerable effect. No Country for Old Men, now playing at the Southroads 20 in midtown Tulsa, has collected dozens of positive notices from the critics, some of whom are calling it a "masterpiece."

We are reluctant to use that particular superlative, but we did find the film a taut and coldly effective work. It's not a sunny vision, but it is an unflinching one, and, significantly, one that explores the way some men decide to live—and die.

The dusty landscape of McCarthy's West Texas (actually New Mexico) is haunting and bleak. Native Texas Tommy Lee Jones is agreeably world-weary as a county sheriff and Javier Bardem is as calculating and evil as any movie killer in memory.

McCarthy's 2005 novel, as we recall, was poorly received, failing to meet the critics' expectations in the wake of the acclaimed Border Trilogy novels. But the Coen brothers have a knack for cold hearts and casual violence (their first film was the noir thriller Blood Simple) and in their hands No County for Old Men proves to be a chilling mediation on the human condition.

If that sounds a bit too grandiose, we can explain. We've read and admired a number of McCarthy novels, though we admit he's not always an easy or pleasant read. We've even met the man, which is something of a coup since McCarthy is famously reclusive. As it happens, we also had occasion to meet the Coen boys once at a screening of Blood Simple.

So we know McCarthy's literary pedigree
well and the borderlands too, having traveled the wilds of West Texas for ourselves on occasion.

All of which leads us to this conclusion: No Country of Old Men is a terribly potent film that kept us twitchy in our seats for its entire length. Fans of Hollywood's lighter fare won't find much entertaining here, but noir film buffs and serious cinema students are likely to find a great deal to celebrate in the latest from the Coens.


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