‘No Country for Old Men’ was the Best Movie of 2007

No Country for Old Men poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2007.

Now this is a great movie!

No Country for Old Man” stands alongside some of Joel and Ethan Coen’s best movies including “Fargo” and “Barton Fink.” Some say it is a return to form for the brothers after their last two movies, “Intolerable Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers,” but they can’t be as bad as people say they are. Even the worst Coen brothers’ movies are far more interesting than most American movies made today. The one thing “No Country for Old Men” proves is they never lost their touch to begin with, and who are we to think that they ever did? I mean really!

This movie is based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy, and he has written a lot of great novels over the years like “All the Pretty Horses.” I have not had the opportunity to read any of his books, but my understanding is they deal with a world where the goodness of human nature is a rarity as the atmosphere is overwhelmed by cruelty. His books have also been described as “unfilmable” by many, but I guess no one told the Coen brothers this (would it have made a difference?).

It all starts off with hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) who stumbles upon a Mexican standoff gone bad where rotting corpses of drug runners and dogs are impossible to ignore (think of the ending of “Reservoir Dogs”). There are also a bunch of trucks laying around, and in them Llewelyn finds the only survivor who begs him for some water. But Llewelyn ends up passively avoiding his pleas as he has no water to give. Instead, he finds among the carnage a big stockpile of heroin and $2 million dollars in cash. He doesn’t bother with the drugs, but he takes the cash and stashes it back at his trailer home where he lives with his wife Carla (Kelly MacDonald).

His conscience, however, keeps him from getting any sleep, so he ends up doing what even he openly says may be “the biggest mistake” he could possibly make. He fills up a bottle of water and heads back to the site to give to that Mexican. Instead, he gets ambushed by a faceless gang who take their shots at him as he escapes away. From then on, the movie is a chase to the finish. But this isn’t simply a chase movie, but a movie where the souls of the characters threaten to be every bit as barren as the desert lands in Texas.

“No Country for Old Men” is one of those movies where everything you hear about it is absolutely true. It has great acting, directing, cinematography and a superb screenplay. There isn’t a single wasted moment in it, and it is certainly one of the most quietly intense movies I have seen in some time. I think it is safe to say the Coen brothers have faithfully adapted Cormac McCarthy’s work while adding their own flavor and dark humor to it, and they drive away at one of his main themes in the book; society getting crueler, and of the end of the world as we know it.

In a sea of great performances, the one man who steals the show here is Javier Bardem who portrays Anton Chigurh, a man who is deeply psychotic but not without principles. From start to finish, Bardem gives us one of the scariest villains in cinematic history whose mere presence forces the characters to immediately fear for their safety. Those other characters who fail to do so are either totally naïve or have no idea who they are talking to.

Josh Brolin is having one heck of a great year right now in the movies. He started 2007 off early on as Dr. Block in “Grindhouse,” then we saw him play a very corrupt cop who runs afoul of Denzel Washington in “American Gangster,” and he is probably in another movie right now which I have yet to see. Safe to say, this is the best performance he has given this year as he is perfectly cast as Llewelyn Moss, a hunter who gets in way over his head.

The other performance worth singling out is Tommy Lee Jones’, and he gives one of his very best ever as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. His character is really the observer of human nature and the decline of it in this story. Jones was pretty much born to play just about any part of a movie adapted from one of McCarthy’s novels. Like the novelist, he clearly understands the worldly feel of Texas and human nature, and this is echoed in the voiceover he gives at movie’s start.

I am not quite sure what to make of the ending. And what is meant by the title “No Country for Old Men” anyway? Is it a metaphor for how the old way of doing things has long since passed the Sheriff Bell by? That the lessons our elders taught us will soon become insignificant? Or is the painful truth that society has no use for men once they qualify for senior citizen discounts? The Coen brothers are not quick to give us answers, but they do give us much to think about as this is a motion picture which will linger with you long after the end credits have concluded.

“No Country for Old Men” is the best movie I have seen in 2007. As I said, there is not a single wasted moment in it.

* * * * out of * * * *

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Bad Santa

bad-santa-movie-poster

I don’t know about you, but I am SICK TO DEATH of holiday movies with families getting together and chaos ensuing. After a while, they all blend into one another and look no different from what we saw the year before. These are movies which shamelessly manipulate audiences into feeling joyful during the Christmas season, but this only works for so many people. Then there are other movies which preach against the commerciality and consumer frenzy which has come to overwhelm the Christmas season for years and years. But ironically, these same movies are released by studios infinitely eager to make a huge profit and potentially start a new franchise.

Yes, it is great to see films which really get to the true meaning of Christmas providing you have a couple extra dollars for them as well as for popcorn and drinks, let alone for the date you are lucky to bring along with you. So, like romantic comedies, I tend to avoid these “festive” cinematic experiences whenever they arrive at a theater near you.

This is why I love “Bad Santa.” It is free of the sentimentality and sugar coated characters which all but mar your typical holiday movie, and this is regardless of whether or not they are intended for the whole family. It is a crude and politically incorrect film, and it has a gleeful amount of fun at Mr. Claus’ expense. But don’t worry; Santa is too busy giving presents to all the children to have any time left to sit through it.

Billy Bob Thornton, one of the best character actors working, plays Willie Stokes, a department store Santa Claus who is anything but fat and jolly. You are more likely to see him drinking backstage, making out like the womanizer he is, and doing other things completely lacking in sensitivity. Seeing him talk with the kids makes you wonder how the hell he manages to keep a job anywhere. Willie cusses at them when they sneeze in his face, and he never lets them ask about the presents they want. I kept waiting for one kid to pee on him as this happens with every department store Santa, but it turns out he is the one doing the pissing. But as cruel and Scrooge-like as Willie is, there is one person he clearly despises more than the kids and their snooty parents, himself.

Eventually, the truth comes out. Along with his partner in crime, Marcus (Tony Cox), Willie robs each mall he works at. They wait until everyone has left, then they disable the security system and go on a shopping spree where they steal all the things they want but can’t afford. Willie’s specialty is opening safes which contain the majority of the store’s loot, and he is clearly a professional safe cracker when we first observe him at work. In addition, Marcus’ wife Lois (Lauren Tom, whose face is contorted into a permanent frown) is there to drive them away when their work is finished. Following this, they take the rest of the year off and live off of the money and valuables they have taken. Marcus goes back to living with his wife while Willie goes off to Miami to get endlessly drunk, and Willie somehow gets lucky with the ladies regardless of his infinitely inebriated state.

Then we catch up with these characters a year later when they are employed at another mall where they plan their next big heist. But of course, things do not go as planned.

Thornton is a hoot as Willie Stokes. While his character does many things which would get him fired from any and every other job available, he gives this endlessly crude character a heart covered with a big slab of cynicism. And amazingly enough, he also makes Willie somewhat empathetic. This comes about when he meets a young pudgy kid who you’d think would teach him the meaning of Christmas, but he is really just stalking Willie out of loneliness. It allows Willie to warm up a little, and seeing him make any sort of effort with this kid is remarkable considering how far from sobriety he is.

The kid’s name is Thurman Merman (Willie basically calls him “The Kid”), he is played by Brett Kelly. Kelly is not anything like those clean-cut kids in Disney movies, and I found this to be very refreshing. Thurman is a short, pudgy little unpopular guy who doesn’t have any friends and is an easy target for bullies in and out of the classroom. What I really dug about Kelly is how dryly comic he is. He never seems to be the least bit fazed by anything Willie does. Willie gives Thurman a ride home and then proceeds to steal from his dad’s safe and steals his car, and Thurman responds by waving at him and saying, “Bye Santa!”

Thurman lives alone in this big house with his senile grandmother who herself is barely dealing with reality as it is. With Willie, Thurman sees him as someone who could be the friend he doesn’t have. Once Willie catches a cop sniffing around his motel room, he ends up moving in with Thurman to stay out of law enforcement’s sight, and this also allows him to play with Thurman and make out with a local bartender in the hot tub while the grandmother watches television listlessly.

“Bad Santa” was directed by Terry Zwigoff whose previous films include “Ghost World,” “American Splendor” and one of the best documentaries of the 1990’s, “Crumb.” Zwigoff is interested in personalities who are far from normal and have been damaged by life. With “Crumb,” he took a close look at a man who dealt with abuse through his creation of comic books which kept him from going completely insane. With “Ghost World,” he followed a couple of girls who prided themselves on being outsiders at their high school. But in the process of becoming adults, their world is shattered by the onslaught of the corporate world which robs what was once original and special to them. Now with “Bad Santa,” Zwigoff deals with his most damaged character yet with Willie, and you wonder if he is worthy of any kind of redemption. As a result, he is more than well-suited to take on this story which was originally written by the Coen Brothers.

Zwigoff also has a blast digging away at the banal culture of American malls. While they were havens for us as teenagers, they eventually became tiresome places to visit as adults because all the stores and food courts became indistinguishable from one mall to the next. From the anal-retentive managers to the overconfident mall security officers to those annoying boy bands, the movie cuts down the sugar coating of the holidays which will be a relief to those who find it fake or something they don’t care much for anymore.

Tony Cox is hilarious as Marcus. You quickly realize Marcus works with Willie out of necessity, not friendship. Truth is, as great a safe man as Willie is, Marcus cannot stand the way he degrades himself and those around him. Lauren Tom plays Marcus’ wife, and I love how she maintains the same snarky expression as she constantly blows off mall employees who want to sell her stuff she plans to steal anyway. I also got a big kick out of Lauren Graham who plays Sue, a local bartender who starts up a relationship with Willie. Sue is not with Willie out of pity, but in large part because of a sexual fetish she has had for Santa Claus ever since she was young.

But the two actors who deserve special recognition for their great work in “Bad Santa,” and who are sadly no longer with us, are John Ritter and Bernie Mac. This actually turned out to be Ritter’s last live action role before his sudden death. As mall manager Bob Chipeska, Ritter reminds us of what a great comic talent he was as he becomes incensed with what Willie gets away with, and yet he is too much of a wimp to do anything to stop him. Instead, he turns to Gin Slagel, mall security chief, who is played by Mac. Even when he doesn’t say a word while eating an orange, Mac still has us laughing hysterically throughout. The diner scene Mac has with our main characters is brilliant in how he maintains a strong air of confidence, and I loved how he kept finding different ways of repeating the same number over and over again.

“Bad Santa” is the perfect holiday film for those who love infinitely black comedies like “The War of the Roses” or “Observe and Report.” It is a much-needed antidote to the manipulative schmaltz many get suckered into seeing, and it makes us root for a character you would never root for in real life. This is definitely one of Thornton’s best movies, and I consider a new holiday classic for those who have seen “A Christmas Carol” and “The Polar Express” one too many times.

Just remember, you have been warned…

* * * * out of * * * *