4/16/2009

Blu-ray Review: No Country for Old Men (2007) -- Collector's Edition


Now Available In a Collector's Edition
With Digital Copy On DVD & Blu-ray



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I. Introduction

One of the strongest works of 2007 and quite possibly—along with Miller’s Crossing—one of the Coen Brothers undisputed masterpieces of which a frame shouldn’t be changed; the Best Picture Award Winning smash No Country for Old Men (from Paramount Vantage and Miramax Films) arrives on a 3-Disc DVD and 2-Disc Blu-ray Collector’s Edition that boasts a Digital Copy of the film as well.

Already one of the most impressive DVDs I’d owned as far as sharpness of picture and sound quality goes since you could nearly feel every audible “thwack” of Bardem’s air gun when it fired and one that towered in its digital transfer over the same two studios’ collaboration of my other favorite work of 2007—There Will Be Blood. Blood, which was diminished on the small screen in DVD finally earned the transfer treatment and high-definition approach it deserved when I witnessed it in Blu-ray a few months back and felt like I was back in the theatre.

Similar to the mesmerizing quality of the Coen Brothers’ lackluster political comedy Burn After Reading from Universal and Focus Features that sparkled like a shiny diamond on DVD—I was curious to see if Country’s newest Blu-ray edition was going to be that much of an improvement in the higher resolution format to warrant the price-tag (especially for those who already own it on DVD or in the earlier Blu-ray version).



However, before we get into the extra features and technical aspects, first I’ll present you with a refresher of my original review published back in 2007 during its theatrical run which was not only amazingly linked to in UK’s The Guardian online (a feat of which I’m still humbly in shock) but was also easily my most read review from that entire year.



“Hold still.”

These words are used by two different characters in the beginning of Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest film just before a gun goes off. The first speaker is sociopath Anton Chigurh—a man for whom the term hit-man may be a gross understatement-- who utilizes this request just before he dispatches his second of many victims that follow with a livestock air stun gun to the brain. The second character is cowboy Llewelyn Moss who makes the foolish mistake of greed, vanity and arrogant pride when he takes off with a satchel filled with two million dollars after he tracks an animal while hunting and stumbles upon the brutal remnants of a drug deal gone horribly wrong with most of the participants bathing in blood and west Texas sunlight.

“Hold still” may be in the script but the action that follows it is anything but still and the Brothers Coen may just as well have been talking to audience members who are now fully aware that they’ve unsuspectingly purchased tickets to one of the wildest western noirs in years and will just have to sit back for the ride.

Taking its title from W. B. Yeats’ poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” No Country for Old Men is based on Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel and although its old men whose values from the past and melancholy remembrance of a time when sheriffs didn’t need to carry a gun is put to the test at the forefront, they're just one of the victimized groups in the movie alongside the younger men, women and animals executed in the bloody two hours.

Quickly into the film, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) packs up his pretty young wife (Kelly Macdonald) and sends her off to her mother’s place when he leaves their trailer park to go on the run from not only the law and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), along with the hired man who comes looking (Woody Harrelson) but most notably killer Anton (Javier Bardem) who walks softly but carries a big weapon.

Blood, it seems to the Coen Brothers, is no longer quite as simple as the name of their oft-praised debut film implies and the writer/directors follow in the grand tradition of western and film noir allegory to paint a bitter and dark portrait of the evil lurking in the hearts of men. As one character states, “This country’s hard on people,” and that seems to be the recurring theme throughout.

Set in 1980, we meet men who’ve served in Vietnam like Brolin, who sees his plan for the dangerous and dumb long-shot that it is and goes for it anyway, wanting to try anything to rise from his station in life as a cowboy in a land without any real need for them (except in country songs) and residence in a trailer park with a wife who works at Wal-Mart.

Relying on his natural persona, Tommy Lee Jones settles instinctively into his role and even without his folk wisdom filled voice over and Texas vernacular that opens the film, he’s a man who believably exudes the law and seems like the ideal choice. Jones’s lawman asks questions first and prefers to shoot later, letting younger officer Wendell go through the door of a trailer first with his gun drawn, and later making the impulsive decision to drink milk left by perpetrator Anton left on the coffee table instead of locking down the crime scene or dusting for prints in a theatrical Dragnet style.

But most of the talk surrounding the film is in regards to Javier Bardem’s chilling Anton who is a mostly silent villain with a cruel quirk of sometimes using a coin toss to coolly decide the fate of those standing in his path and it’s fascinating that the one who refuses to play along with what Anton surely feels is a logical game is a woman who calls him on the fact that it’s not logical at all and just a scapegoat since he’ll do his will anyway.

Bardem, given a purposely horrid haircut discovered by the brothers in an 1890’s photo of a brothel patron (IMDb), is referred to as a ghost in the film and some of his scenes are setup painstakingly similar to the finale of Blood Simple. Although, after making films for more than two decades in a world that’s getting increasingly unpredictable, we’re never sure just what the Coens will have happen until a surprising finale left some critics angered by its anti-climactic out-of-the-blue quality that would surely have earned the screenplay an "F" in most college writing courses.

I was prepared not for the exact details of the ending but the fact that it stunned others and while admittedly I was a bit dismayed at first, later I realized that it still seems to fit with the man vs. man mentality of the piece and the unpredictability of life itself that's a recurring Coen theme. Life is a coin toss after all and the fact that there's no overt payoff corresponds to the rules of the darkly existential, old testament style game being played.

Ultimately it's quite an enviable literary achievement that's worthy of McCarthy instead of the same three act structure that's been forced down our throats again and again and boasts the same nihlistic sense of dark fate from which Anton was born in the first place on McCarthy's page.

To quote one of the more memorable titles in Elmore Leonard’s crime novel oeuvre, No Country for Old Men is “Freaky Deaky” indeed—alternatively pulsating between moody contemplation and tense action perfectly depicted by one of our most gifted cinematographers, the incomparable Roger Deakins. Nominated for the ’07 Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, not only is this vicious masterpiece sure to be one of the most discussed films when looking back at the very best of the Coen films but it’s also one of the best movies of 2007.

III. The Blu-ray

While there is a slightly noticeable difference in depth perception between the DVD and Blu-ray in a back and forth comparison, honestly the dark-tinged work of cinematographic genius Roger Deakins isn’t overly enhanced by the full 1080 pixel experience, at least in the night scenes or ones set when there is little light.

Although you can hear every whisper of the wind in the Texas desert and Brolin’s introduction to audiences as he soldiers out into the desert, armed and ready makes you feel as though you’re in West Texas as well, you’ll definitely need to adjust your color settings and possibly move to “vivid” (which still is even a bit muddied) in some of the film’s most intense chase scenes.

This is especially necessary during the film’s nail-biters as we take in the titular men’s version of cat and mouse as Brolin hides under the truck before he eventually must jump into a stream with a dog only seconds behind him before it turns to daylight (fortunately) and later when Bardem unscrews the light-bulb in the hotel hallway and the two men have a showdown that goes on for blocks in one of the film’s greatest sequences.

Additionally, it would have been beneficial for the manufacturers to insert more chapter stops so you could jump directly to some of the film’s most iconic scenes either as a fan or a film geek and while a few of the familiar features had appeared on the film’s initial release on DVD, it’s a treat to take in all of the extras.

Described as a movie about “a good guy, a bad guy, and a guy in between” by Joel Coen, a cross between a “comedy,” “horror” and “chase” movie by the good-humored and baffled Tommy Lee Jones, a “very emotional, very primitive” work by Josh Brolin, and a “very powerful” tale about violence and the many paths that can be taken by Javier Bardem—perhaps the most astute observation in the making-of-featurette comes from sweet, Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald who rightly calls it “a Coen Brothers movie; they’re their own genre.”

It continues to fascinate as the mini-documentary breaks down everything from the challenges of developing Anton Chigurh who was only referenced as being a person “without a sense of humor” in Cormac McCarthy’s book in both the Coen Brothers and Javier Bardem’s assessment that the audience doesn’t need to know everything or have everything explained about the man Brolin’s character calls “the ultimate badass.”

Additionally, discussing the potentially lethal dangers of some of the film’s most violent scenes including the opening handcuffed strangulation as well as an insight into the way all of the elements including costume designed subtly helped to the story by making Anton’s boots look like a weapon—the “making-of” extra segues nicely into a short piece entitled “Working With the Coens.”

Intriguingly revealing that Bardem’s first confession upon his arrival in the United States from his native Spain was a desire to work with the Coen Brothers—the rest of the cast and crew members (several of whom have collaborated with them for countless pictures) further explain their reputation as a two-headed director who never argue, know exactly what the want, and can finish each other’s sentences.

Also including a piece about Jones’ character—the two standout extras that truly make this a collectible edition include Josh Brolin’s hilarious short “Unauthorized Documentary,” wherein he, Bardem, Woody Harrelson, the producers and others take on roles as though they had been chronicling a horrific Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness experience as they reveal the “dark side” of the Coens, rambling on strangely to great effect but the ultimate film buff achievement of the Blu-ray is serving up an in-depth "Press Timeline."

Including podcasts, interviews, Q&A’s and major coverage from the film that would go onto win several Academy Awards—the intellectual celebration of the modern classic continues on the back of the Blu-ray box (inside the outer protective cardboard holder) as mini-paragraphs and extended quotes from some of the nation’s top critics fill the desert landscape design of the front and back wraparound cover.