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My Life Among the Serial Killers:
Inside the Minds of the World's Most Notorious Murderers
by Helen Morrison
(Hardcover from Amazon)
"No Country For Old Men"
The title should be a forewarning: expect something different. You are not only in "No Country For Old Men," you're in Cormac McCarthy territory. Who's he? Besides being an author of keen originality in the mystery genre and one of its most unique literary stylists, this author was introduced to the TV mainstream when his 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Road," was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as her newest book club selection along with a rare interview.
For those never before exposed to the territory he stakes claim to, it's typically a lean and dangerous place where good men face the most powerful and morally vacuous forces of villainy. Here is where men get lost in dubious decisions and caught up in a tension between greed and territoriality.
It's West Texas of the 1980's, on a typically dry and silent day of a sort that gives local hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) a chance to do some hunting out on the prairie land for him and his wife. He spots a small herd, shoots, hits, but it's a wound. Tracking the animal, he comes upon a scene of carnage the likes of which he'd never seen.
A ring of five vehicles face inward in a scattered circle, all in various stages of destruction, splattered with blood and bullet holes. Dead bodies and high-powered weapons litter the ground. On the flat bed of one small truck is a pile of drugs that could finance a small war, which is exactly what this all was. Carefully, he checks each closed door for signs of life and finds one survivor.
A Mexican man, barely breathing, begs for agua, water. He's wounded and his lips are parched, but Llewelyn has none to give. Instead, he reimagines the sequence of events and reasons out that there has to be one more man involved. Out here, shade is a magnet for anyone hiding for any length of time and on the prairie it's as scarce as water. He finds a man on some high ground under a tree. Or, rather, another dead body. By the body's side is a satchel, full of money. Two million worth in neat piles of hundred dollar bills.
While this is occurring a deputy sheriff has just captured and cuffed a suspect and brings him in to the station. The deputy sits at his desk calling it in while the captured man, Anton Chigurh (pronounced shi-gurr with a short "i") (Javier Bardem), who has been nothing if not compliant, on a chair behind him. Chigurh silently rises, approaches the deputy and uses the handcuffs to garotte him to death.
Suspect indeed. To broaden this killer's credentials, we see him drive the sheriff's car shortly afterward and stop a motorist by the side of the road. Carrying an air tank and a device attached to it by a hose, he orders the man out of his car, places the device to the center of the motorist's head, and hammers him with its air-driven spike. A deadly killer is on the loose.
That night, after a bit of playful jousting with his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), Llewelyn finds himself unable to sleep. To Carla Jean's protestations and questions he -- big, bad, single-minded man that Llewelyn Moss is -- fills a jug with water and drives back to the drug site. He parks his truck on a ridge overlooking it and walks down to give the Mexican man a drink. Very bad move. Very, very bad.
He finds the Mexican man down, a big gaping hole in the window where he sat. Just about the time he realizes he needs to get out of there, a car has pulled up to Llewelyn's truck. Two men emerge and check it out. Llewelyn hides, looking for an escape route. The two men remount their off-road vehicle and come after him, bullets flying. After a frantic chase that includes a very vicious dog, Llewelyn barely escapes with a leap into the Rio Grande river.
But, now this stubborn, well-meaning man is in Chigurh's crosshairs. And, though he doesn't yet know what that means, he will find out soon enough.
As though closely involved but actually at a philosophical distance, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) plays the good 'ol boy from the comfort of his well-worn sheriff's chair, keeping order and presiding over the passing criminal parade that just seems to get deadlier and freakier. When he and his deputy ride out to the drug scene, he reads the story the bodies tell, understanding the several levels of brutality like a forensic pathologist. But the overwhelming facts on the ground bring him more to the melancholy meaning of it than a determination to track down its sources. For him, the old west has evolved into a stage for wholesale slaughter, modern weaponry, bulletless airguns, soulless men, and all that gives him a feeling of dread about the new west and what an aging man of the law can do about it. The title of the film is from Bell's perspective, a canny man of the law who knows enough to leave this case to a younger breed. Paying close attention to his dialogue at the drug crime scene in the desert, and again in his thoughts expressed to his colleague of a comparable age, we see that he's a man who recognizes that this trail of assassination and slaughter is a phenomenon coming from parts unknown and far too hellish. The magnitude of this level of crime has turned his jurisdiction into "No Country For Old Men."
Jones ("The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada") was born for such parts, even to the dead-pan, sharply-timed humor he brings to the piece. His face and the modulations of his voice are of the texture still to be found on desert lands, rocky, craggy, edges softened by many seasons. He emerges from this role a full-fledged hero of the craft of acting, a mentor to his peers.
Playing the impulsive central figure, moustached Brolin ("In the Valley of Elah") proves himself compelling and strong. As a brash, courageous, bull-headed lead, he's an entirely attractive figure and a perfect fit to the role leaving nothing to be desired. His physicality is put to endless use as he carries his haul and simulates wounds as believably as the best of them.
As young wives go, I'm completely taken by Kelly Macdonald. Beautiful, sexy, any man's ideal of a western country wife without a faithless bone in her body. Given to sweetheart and sentimental roles ("Lassie," "Nanny McPhee," Peter Pan in "Neverland") here she plays what is probably the childhood sweetheart who is fully aware of every single negative attribute of her man's willful makeup while adoring him to death and determined never to use words to express it. She furnishes emotional dimensions that the main story line cannot. In a more tangential role, Woody Harrelson turns on his best humorous arrogance as the assassin to kill an assassin hired by the cartel.
Bardem, who has played a dying poet ("The Sea Inside") and a homosexual lover ("The Dancer Upstairs") with the kind of presence and power that evokes screen heavyweights, here conveys the embodiment of the sociopathic evil that McCarthy creates in his book. A Dutch Boy hairstyle and blue-jacketed casual in clothing softens the image of a systematic, unwaverable assassin like so much camouflage. Combined with the magnetism of his personna, he creates one of the more fearful villains in the annals of evil.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins plays his tonality in a tight, slightly desaturated range that visually supports the unforgiving aspect of the theme and the harsh realities of the settings. The look of the film is artful and finely conceived. Carter Burwell's score is tense and eerie by turns.
The originality I spoke of before is, in part, as much in the outcome as in the style of telling. The Coens have been faithful to their source material, conveying to the fullest possible degree in a motion picture adaptation, a Cormac McCarthy horror-mystery with all its ingenuity and without a hint of standard Hollywood compromise. Happily for literature, it retains the fright and power of the book, presenting one of the most surprising endings ever -- one that will cause much discussion and analysis.
~~ Jules Brenner