Sunday, February 24, 2008

‘No Country for Old Men’ (2007)


‘the mousy girl screams violence, violence’ (Of Montreal)

Anton Chigurh’s (Javier Bardem) appearance screams a type of violence that will skillfully elude anyone who he comes in contact with. The only problem for them (except for a feisty receptionist, who is saved unknowingly by a flushing toilet) is that they do not survive his flipped coins or incisive cattle-gun bullets once his monstrosity manifests. What’s more, they do not see their death coming because they presume Chigurh follows the same set of conventional rules they live by. Brilliantly directed by the Coen brothers (Joel & Ethan), ‘No Country for Old Men’ is a thrilling expose on the changing value of violence and the slow realization of such.

Adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel, the film settles into its 1980 West Texas landscape poetically and, in the form of the local sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (the ever solid Tommy Lee Jones) philosophically. Bell is an ‘old school’ lawmaker, the type of man who recognizes that his title must elevate his crime-solving techniques above that of the ordinary citizen or even his deputies. It is among these groups that his remarks come off as crisp and all-knowing. Bell though is getting older and sees the signs of a change that will leave him behind so when a series of ghastly murders take place in his town, the sheriff is understandably agitated.

He has good reason to be. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) discovers a stash of cash ($2 million), heroin and a ton of dead Mexicans after an obvious deal gone awry and decides to take the money. This being a moral issue within itself isn’t a concern of the film and that all parties involved play along these lines mirrors the nature of change we all deal with and weigh in on a daily basis. Sheriff Bell can make the seismic shift of values in order to pursue Moss because he realizes immediately that there’s deeper trouble brewing. Petty crime is thus put on the backseat by the law but in the shape of Chigurh (a fantastic Bardem, who has crafted the best serial killer since Hannibal Lecter) it spurs on his more virulent action. Chigurh moves with the swiftness of a man assured already of victory but he is aided with a tracking device that never fails to do its job.

The two go hand in hand and even spills over towards those trapped in the path of his objection. Chigurh takes no prisoners and only a fateful flip of a coin save some. He gives the illusion of choice to those destined for execution but those who weren’t really in his path do get a real choice. Given the frugal, moralistic writing style of Cormac McCarthy (I admit freely to not liking his hyped-to-death ‘The Road’) the transformation by the Coen brothers of thought and idea to the screen is nothing short of spectacular with their writing and directing credits. The attention to detail is sheer poetic and, like the film itself, volatile: Chigurh shoots Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) while the telephone rings and then speaks to Moss mindful to lift his legs as Wells’ blood spreads thickly on the floor.

Of course, it is the hunt and anticipated showdown of the two that make the film so gripping. The more Moss runs the quicker Chigurh tracks him down. Unlike Sheriff Bell who must piece their actions after the fact, Chigurh has the luxury of Moss knowing the extent of his violence and what he will do to get back the stolen cash. Their telephone conversation is chilling and the affect it has on Moss and his family is long-lasting. He, like Bell, underestimates the opponent initially only to regret it forever. His wife however recognizes her doom immediately. Played with great affectation by Kelly MacDonald, Carla Jean personifies innocence caught up in strife by way of association. When Chigurh finally reaches to her, she is resigned but still tells him that he has a choice in the matter. It’s a poignant moment, one that Bardem brilliantly retorts that he has promised Moss to ‘deal’ with his wife. He walks out of the house and what happens next really spins our perception of societal justice out of context.

The beauty of the film though lies in its conviction that one cannot simply repudiate violence at one’s own peril but that we have to acknowledge its presence as a way of life. Sheriff Bell realizes the enormity that faces him and has no option but to admit openly that the level of crime is beyond his handling. Chigurh is the killer of a new time, one that can walk away unscathed to fight new battles or at least pay his way out of complicity. He, not the law, is the one with his hand on the pulse of this new world. That makes ‘No Country for Old Men’ frighteningly real and a modernistic take on the evolutionary process of crime that will likely smudge our paranoid lives, one way or the other.

RATING: 10/10

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

'The Bourne Ultimatum'

'Past The Mission'

'Ah, but you can't kill me, Louis' Lestat ('Interview with a Vampire')

The C.I.A. and Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) find themselves expressing a similar sentiment to each other immediately after 'The Bourne Ultimatum' begins. Bourne is of course on the run, still trying to piece his past identity together without having to kill as much. Meanwhile, the C.I.A. pursues its aim to eliminate any trace of the program that created Bourne and once they accidentally sight him through a London surveillance camera, this intensity grows. The moment is a jolt to deputy director Noah Vosen (David Strathairn, at his icy best). Bourne's constant elusiveness shows up the department as ineffectual to take out their own and he wants to put an end to it once and for all. For him, one thing matters only and that's winning, no matter the cost.

If you have followed the previous two films in the series then the plot is pretty much familiar. Bourne runs, kills, pieces a little together only to have to run again. 'Ultimatum' treads this routine early on but director Paul Greengrass takes a suspenseful turn for the better after Bourne is revealed to the C.I.A. and stumbles across Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) in a Tangiers safe-house. There is some brilliantly played out tension in the ensuing phone call which functions solely as a call to arms for both factions to clearly define their chosen sides. By now Pam Landy (Joan Allen) and Parsons have tacitly aligned themselves to Bourne in order to defy C.I.A regulation. Covert operations begin to take a fascinating structural shape that will ultimately cost several traditional regulations. As they divide between themselves the unquestioned loyalty that had kept Bourne a united target to start with, both factions put their poker faces on.

The film successfully executes its divisiveness partially because of its writing. Credit then goes to Tony Gilroy, Scott Burns and George Nolfi for holding nothing back by way of faceless deception: Vosen desperately tries to trap and outwit Bourne with technological sophistry only to be one-upped by a standard telescopic devise. This nicely shows contrast of method. Landy and Parsons help Bourne fully well knowing that their lives will be jeopardized. After Bourne escapes with Parsons from the safe-house and she is turned into a target as well, the angle is thrillingly explored through a long chase sequence with her instincts finally being put to action. The assassin chases her into a dwelling (agents often think alike so it's merely kinetic) but Bourne prevents harm to her with some snappy action. He battles the assassin in full view of Parsons and she watches grimly aware that this is real; she is no longer safely viewing the action from an office. They silently clean up afterwards: words aren't needed. This is the job for which they are trained. Bourne however, amid a flash-back sequence, determines that before the C.I.A can shut both down he will take decisive action first.

That means going back to the place where it all started three years ago: the C.I.A training facility in New York. The two factions roll out to meet him but Vosen miscalculates Landy's sense of duty. She finally realizes that there is a cover-up that can only be contained with Bourne's elimination and strings Vosen along just as he has been stringing her along all the time. Her defection hits the deputy director late: he does eventually decode her plans to meet Bourne but arrives too late to prevent her from faxing unclassified and damning documents that will expose his part of the cover-up. Vosen however is not alone in getting a rude awakening. Bourne finally retraces his steps and his memory on that first day he first volunteered to be a part of the C.I.A. operation. It’s a devastating truth: he is one of a line of experimental super-agents that get eliminated once past their missions. To ensure no dual interest or conflict, the C.I.A. enforces the succession by a type of patricide.

It's uncanny but Greengrass has, for the second film running, managed to succinctly pose inherent and uncomfortable questions about the state of American intelligence and information-gathering mechanism. Though he directed the last 'Bourne' film, this new one more resembles his brilliant post-9/11 docudrama 'United 93' (in my view, the best film of 2006). That film also held a high office and its individuals under subtle scrutiny for a series of events that capitulate out of control.

'Bourne Ultimatum' offers shades of the 'Matrix' trilogy as well. The characters here too also know how and when to take precipitous action. Though the true aim of their action is to effect change, they all know nothing will change because one course of action is wholly dependent on another. Remove that conflict and the other falls away as well. This challenging attachment is what keeps the film's anticipation going as well as unresolved (no doubt keeping the door open for a possible sequel) so Greengrass merely teases then with a flurry of 'Matrix-esque' activity towards the end. Vosen may eventually come up on the wrong end of his gamble like the Architect but he does get his shot at Bourne--literally. Landy may have gotten her hands on the damning documents but, like Morpheus, it sinks her implicitly deeper into a situation which she is not in control of. Parsons receives the news of Bourne getting shot with a Trinity-like unreadable expression but this lifts to a wry smile when it's reported that his body is yet to be found. Bourne of course is the Neo figure. He pirouettes into the air and crashes into the sea, pretty much how the series began. In the last shot we see his seemingly indestructible body thrusting upward as if by instinct. The only question now is--aimed with the issue of his past fully resolved, and without an Oracle figure to guide him, will Bourne swim knowingly to shore or resolutely towards the horizon.

RATING: 9/10