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Coens present never-ending thriller

By Aaron Zundel

“No Country for Old Men”MiramaxWritten and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy

Starring Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Woody Harrelson and Kelly MacDonald

Rated R/122 minutesThree-and-a-half out of four stars

Historically, when Hollywood adapts a novel for the big screen, they gut the original source material to the point that, by the time the film hits theaters, the only shared element is the title.

Not so with the Coen Brothers’ (“Fargo,” “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”) new film “No Country for Old Men.” In what is perhaps the most literary film ever released, “No Country” smashes the standard film tropes of the western, the thriller and, yes, perhaps even the “art” film, to produce a cinematic experience that’s truly unique.

Based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, “No Country” is the story of Texas welder Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin). After stumbling across the aftermath of a particularly nasty drug deal gone wrong, Moss, who forgets that huge piles of drug money should always be left where they’re found, makes off with an abandoned briefcase full of cash.

Yeah, big mistake.

Moss soon becomes the target of a psychotic assassin named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). And yes, all assassins are psychotic, but comparatively, Anton makes normal assassins look like Mr. Magoo. With the help of absolutely inspired direction from the Coens, “No Country,” although incredibly visual, manages to retain not only the essential plot of the original novel, but also the structure, atmosphere and even the rhythm of McCarthy’s prose. To put it another way, although I never forgot I was watching a movie during “No Country,” it always felt as if I were reading a book.

The film is a new direction for the Coens, who usually stray away from action sequences (and there are some real bloody doozies in this one) in favor of quirky, twisted humor. (Not to worry, Coen fans, “No Country” still contains the distinctive Coen flavor when it comes to the jokes, there are just fewer of them.)

Javier Bardem, who makes his first major American appearance in the film, is, in particular, absolutely chilling as the assassin Chigurh. When he’s not gambling people’s lives on the flip of a coin or punching their brains out with his trusty pneumatic cattle gun, Chigurh brings a presence to the screen that has not been seen since Charlton Heston brought the “Ten Commandments” down from Mount Sinai.

Best of all, the film — technically classified as a thriller — isn’t about the money, the chase, or even Moss himself. “No Country” is at its core a film about violence and the injustice and suffering that results from its reckless employ. As Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) says in the film’s opening monologue: In the old days, sheriffs didn’t even need to wear guns, nowadays murderous teenagers are sent to the electric chair.

The film doesn’t really end (another one of those pesky literary qualities) and instead, leaves us contemplating the actions the characters take rather than the respective outcomes. Some people won’t be able to handle that, and they’ll walk out of the theater cursing the time they lost to such a pointless story. (Actual quote heard upon exiting the theater: “F***ing movie! He just walks off?”)

But those people will have missed the point.

Because “No Country” boldly aspires to embody the methodical, stark and haunting essence of McCarthy’s novel, there’s no reason it ought to end anywhere else.

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