Early on in No Country for Old Men there is a wide-angle shot of an open field in border-town Texas. Gorgeous but menacing it is the very snapshot of “calm before the storm.” One of the men who will momentarily be in the storm’s epicenter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is actually providing us with this view through the scope of his rifle as he stalks the unsuspecting antelope. Even further in the distance a cluster of bullet-ridden trucks catches his eye and so he walks that distance for a closer look. What he finds is a drug deal gone awry and $2 million with his name on it. He scurries away with the cash and without the knowledge he has just turned the devil onto him. Enter Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) who some know as the devil or as a ghost or as the bogeyman or not at all and whose blood money Llewelyn just intercepted. There are crazy-serial-killer types and then there is Anton a murderer whose blood is so cold that he derives only apathy from taking a life—which has afforded him a very successful career as a hitman. Once word gets out that Anton is after Llewelyn a third man enters the fray—an aging policeman (Tommy Lee Jones) loath to draw his gun in the small town he has manned for years let alone hunt down a lunatic. So the tango begins with Llewelyn unwittingly carrying a transponder through which Anton can track him and Anton wittingly leaving a path of bodies through which the lawman can track him. It takes a cast like the one in No Country to pull off what the Coen brothers demand of their actors—which is to say acting that transcends dialogue delivery. Take Bardem’s villain for example a man(iac) of few words. The Oscar nominee whose Anton is fear-inspiring on first look says as much with his impassive demeanor and lack of swagger as he does with his terse literal dialogue. But when he does speak it makes the words stick that much more; a scene in which he introduces the word “Friend-o” into the cinephile lexicon will have you sweating and chuckling—nervously. His is the type of psycho that’s as entrancing and potentially iconic as Hannibal Lecter. As the guy on the run so to speak Brolin is this movie’s version of the good guy though that doesn’t exactly compel you to root for him. Brolin instead like Bardem conveys what isn’t spoken--in his case logical fear that is stupefied by virility and money hunger. It marks another great performance for Brolin whose 2007 has been full of them. Jones meanwhile could not have been a more perfect casting choice to provide No Country’s voice of reality its Mr. Righteous. His aging overmatched cop doesn’t even get harmed but still might be the movie’s lone true victim thanks to the eloquent but stoic performance of Jones who also serves as narrator. And Woody Harrelson in a small speedy role shows zest we haven’t seen in a long time. Joel and Ethan Coen have always worked best in the dark be it comedy or drama. With No Country they’ve reached their peak darkness in both genres. The movie is often something of an exercise in subtle pitch-black comedy—perhaps the only way in which it strays from its source material a wildly beloved novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy—detectable only by those who pay close attention to and/or are familiar with the Coens. But it’s the suspense here that differs from their entire oeuvre and all of their contemporaries. With virtually no music long periods of silence and positively nothing extraneous the directors create tension via minimalism: Chase sequences are done mostly on foot and conclude intimately and gruesomely with one scene featuring Brolin and Bardem separated by a hotel-room door proving especially suspenseful damn near Hitchcockian. But No Country isn’t all about the chase; in fact it's about the Coens' originality and how they inject it to keep this from being a “chase” movie. It's an instant classic—a horrifying funny suspenseful masterpiece that could only have come from these two filmmakers.
Three Burials is languid simplicity at its best. The story starts off as a murder mystery of sorts when a Mexican man Melquiades Estrada is found shot dead outside a dusty Texas town near the U.S./Mexican border. Without any family he’s written off and unceremoniously buried in a shallow grave. This is not at all satisfactory for Pete Perkins (Jones) a local ranch foreman and Melquiades’ only friend. Pete decides to investigate his friend’s murder on his own and finds out the culprit is a young hot-headed border patrolman named Mike Norton (Barry Pepper). He kidnaps Mike and forces him to disinter the body. With his captive in tow and the body tied to a mule Pete then undertakes a dangerous and romantic journey into Mexico to give Melquiades a proper burial. The older he gets the more Tommy Lee Jones excels at portraying a man of few words. Maybe its because his face--filled with years of deep lines and crevices--can explain everything just by staring off into the distance or by coldly glaring at an enemy. As Pete (for which Jones won best actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival) the actor hands us a lonely cowboy who finds a friendship with an unlikely amigo (played by Julio Cedillo). These two don’t head towards Brokeback Mountain territory but the bond is there. And when Melquiades is killed it sends Pete into a spiral of pain revenge and eventual self-discovery. As Pete’s captive Pepper (25th Hour) turns in an amazing performance as the bewildered border patrolman who goes on his own journey towards redemption. And on the sidelines is January Jones (American Wedding) as Mike’s wife and Melissa Leo (21 Grams) as Pete’s sometimes girlfriend who give boredom a whole new outlook and aptly show just how stuck a beautiful woman can be in such a nowhere town. It’s clear Three Burials is indeed very close to Jones’ heart. Shot almost entirely on his sprawling West Texas ranch Jones’ directorial debut was apparently born out of years of deer-hunting trips he took with Three Burials’ screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (who also wrote the happy little film 21 Grams). “You don’t have to spend much time along the Rio Grande before you realize that [Arriaga’s] country and mine and the same ” Jones told Entertainment Weekly. Jones paints a vivid picture of this land--and the people--he obviously loves dearly while also depicting the racial and political tensions brewing along the border. But it’s Arriaga’s script that deftly changes the film’s pace. It’s a Western a dark comedy a revenge thriller that eventually turns into a Don Quixote journey of sorts--and the whole thing just keeps you glued save for a few extraneous moments here and there. This could be the start of a beautiful collaborative team.
The story of the late great Johnny Cash depicted in Walk the Line is not quite all encompassing. The film dramatizes just one moment in Cash's life: his tumultuous 20s and rise to fame. The young Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) married and straight out of the army struggles with his music finally finding his patented blend of country blues and rock music. Haunted by a troubled childhood Cash sings songs about death love treachery and sin--and shoots straight to the top of the charts. On tour he also meets and falls for his future wife June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) whose refusal to meddle with a married man only further fuels the fire and contributes to his eventual drug addiction. Their cat-and-mouse love story provides the film’s core but unfortunately can’t quite overcome Walk the Line’s formulaic nature. Biopics are generally good to actors. Phoenix and Witherspoon could easily each walk away with Oscar statuettes for turning in two of the most jaw-dropping spellbinding performances since well Jamie Foxx in Ray. Neither actor had any musical background whatsoever but they both underwent painstaking transformations for the sake of authenticity doing all of their own singing as well as guitar-playing for Phoenix. The actor's performance is purely raw and visceral; his vulnerability is aptly palpable at first but then he becomes the Cash with the unflinching swagger. Witherspoon's Carter is Cash's temptress and she'll be yours too by movie's end. She eerily reincarnates Carter as if she was born to play the part. If Walk the Line is the ultimate actor's canvas then Phoenix and Witherspoon make priceless art-and music-together. While good for the actors biopics can prove to be difficult for the director. It’s hard to highlight a person’s life without it coming off like a TV movie of the week. Unfortunately director James Mangold (Copland) plays it safe with Walk the Line. The duets between Johnny and June on stage are about the only electrifying moments of the film. The rest is pretty stereotypical. And it isn’t because the film only focuses on certain years of Cash's life. It's simply not possible to fit a lifetime into the short duration of a film. The problem instead is that Mangold's presentation of Cash's life would lead one to believe that Cash actually exorcised his demons. But in reality his lifelong demons are what endeared him to the layperson. There was nothing cut and dry about the Cash story--and adding a little grit would have given Walk the Line the edge it needed.
Hardened by years of brutal but loyal military service special ops officer Robert Scott (Val Kilmer) is assigned to find the president's apparently kidnapped daughter Laura Newton (Kristen Bell). Pairing up with his protégé Curtis (Derek Luke) Scott works diligently with a task force of presidential advisors the Secret Service the FBI and the CIA to find her and through their investigation they stumble upon a white slavery ring in the Middle East which may--or may not--have some connection to Laura's disappearance. The straightforward search-and-rescue mission is soon bogged down in political machinations and the girl's abduction starts to look even more suspicious than it did at first. In fact the mission comes to an abrupt halt altogether when the girl is supposedly found drowned from a boating accident. Scott returns to his quiet life until Curtis shows up and proves that Laura is still alive and most likely trapped in the white slavery ring. In a race against time Scott and Curtis embark on their own unofficial rescue mission--and put themselves at the center of a dangerous conspiracy that goes all the way to the top of the U.S. government.
Val Kilmer probably won't be joining Mamet's dedicated circle of players--which includes Joe Mantegna William H. Macy and Mamet's wife actress Rebecca Pidgeon--any time soon. While it's clear Kilmer took the role to work with the talented writer/director he isn't well suited to deliver "Mamet-speak"--the rapid fire delivery of terse dialogue the writer is known for--and Kilmer looks uncomfortable trying to do it. The gifted actor who can't help but bring in his own quirky sensibilities to the part still hits the nail on the head as steely resolute Scott. But the minute he starts dispensing sage advice--Mamet-style--Kilmer sticks out like a sore thumb. Same goes for Luke (Antwone Fisher) who is entirely miscast as Scott's sidekick. Others in the ensemble however handle the Mamet chores more adeptly including Macy and Ed O'Neill (yes the guy from TV's Married ... With Children) as presidential aides.
Spartan's real problem however is that it's a thriller without much thrill. Mamet's expertise is in creating scenarios within a microcosm whether it's a world of con artists (House of Games; The Spanish Prisoner) salesmen (Glengarry Glen Ross) or even showbiz (State and Main). These Mamet films are even-keeled--almost devoid of emotion. He sets up characters and actions relevant to that particular world so when characters spout lines in Mamet's distinctive style it comes off as perfectly natural. Yet with Spartan Mamet is tackling a bigger grander picture and when his style is applied to the world as a whole it doesn't work. Plus in the thriller genre the audience needs to feel invested in the characters and Mamet's distant unemotional style doesn't lend itself to sending the audience's collective hearts racing. The only poignant moment in the film belongs to Bell as the wounded daughter who just wants a little attention from Daddy and the only truly exciting moments are during her rescue. That said however Spartan proves Mamet still knows how to craft a story. Although the script is at times vague and convoluted it thankfully never falls into any of the genre's usual patterns and it throws in enough twists to keep you on your toes.