There was a strange kind of tension as I sat in the advance screening of No Country for Old Men, no one speaking and only a few rustles of popcorn and a quiet cough interrupting the hush. I got the strong sense that everyone who was in that room, who had all bothered to come in at 12:15 on a Saturday the week before the film is actually released, were all aware that this was supposedly something special, and were all lovers of great cinema. It's a rare thing for me to be in such good company while watching a film, and it did indeed make a nice change. (Except for the rather, ah, portly gentleman who was breathing so loudly near the end I'm sure he'd fallen asleep, the dolt.)
But you've already heard everything about No Country, haven't you, whether you've seen it- in which case you don't need me to tell you how fantastic it is- or not- in which case you really shouldn't want to know, for the surprise is part of the experience. I hadn't really been thinking about the fact that I was going to see the film until the night before, when it suddenly flashed through my brain that I was finally going to see the film everybody had raved about. The thing is, I've never been a big Coens fan. Their previous lauded work like Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, etc. usually seemed too cold, too technically proficient that they lost any kind of connective centre. (Exceptions: I loved Blood Simple, and I really must rewatch Fargo before passing any kind of judgment on it.) So when I heard that No Country was a 'return-to-form' for the brothers Coen I took it with a pinch of salt.
So kudos to them that I really did love it. The whole film itself felt like the images within where psycho killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) shoots someone and then watches the blood seep slowly across the floor. So Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds a drug deal gone wrong and a case full of money and the whole tangled mess spreads out from there.
But No Country isn't a straightforward picture, and its the Coens clever, unpredictable touches that make this film special. Like framing the picture with seemingly unimportant character Sheriff Tom Ed Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), or killing one of the central characters offscreen with an almost glacial impassivity. Or putting the two least connected central characters into a horrifically tense and superbly acted little showdown. No Country is bitingly and sparingly written, but the Coens, not forgetting their lauded technical credentials, also use the crew around them to great effect: Roger Deakins' cinematography is every bit as unnerving as the story, while the use of sound is simply mind-blowing, especially in the opening sequences on the deserted sand plains.
No Country works both as a simple, barebones and nicely tense thriller, but also, as many have noted before, as some kind of subdued social commentary. The controversial (for being so unexpected- I have to say, I wasn't really paying attention, which made me feel rather embarassed when it then finished) ending bespeaks of the entire film's downbeat, pessimistic attitude, but while the body of the film itself puts across the idea that the world is going downhill, the final scene intimates that it's already been there for decades, at least. No, No Country isn't exactly a cheering film, but it is one of the few films this year that feels truly alive- sure, alive with bleakness, death and negativity, but those are human characteristics as valid as happiness and hopefulness, and the Coens have made a gripping thriller that isn't afraid to brace the world's darkest elements.