Sunday, April 07, 2013

Suspense the Coen Brothers way

 I’m a fan of the Coen Brothers’ movies. I believe they take the best of vintage cinema and bring it up to date. No Country for Old Men, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, is a movie in the Hitchcock tradition. It has a strong lead, Josh Brolin as Llewelyn Moss, it has an amazing villain in Anton Chiguhr, played to psychopathic perfection by Javier Bardem.

As I watched the movie yesterday for the third time, I picked out one sequence to show how the Coen Brothers cinematic knowhow show us how suspense and audience anticipation build.

Llewelyn, who has found $2,000,000 of drug money in the aftermath of a bloodbath in the Texas desert, is on the run from a stone-cold killer, Chiguhr. Chiguhr has a terrifying gimmick, a large canister of compressed air. With it he not only kills, but is able to blow the locks out of doors.

Llewelyn always seems just one step ahead. At about the one hour mark of the movie he is still on the run.

It’s night, and the road stretches on to the next town.

At a cheap hotel Llewelyn checks in, gives the desk clerk some money and makes a request.

While lying on the bed he suddenly realizes how Chiguhr is able to find him.

He checks the bag of cash, and finds a transponder hidden amongst the bills.

Llewelyn, who is a hunter himself, understands the advantage his hunter has over him. He is instantly alert.

He figures the killer will come at him through the door.

Llewelyn makes a phone call to the front desk. No answer. That is a bad sign.

He listens at the door, and settles on the edge of the bed with his shotgun.

Shadows cast by the hallway light show someone standing outside his door.

The shadows disappear. We in the audience know this isn’t the end. We also have an advantage over Llewelyn, because we know about Chiguhr’s air canister.

Llewelyn watches as the crack of light under the door goes dark. Someone has turned out the hallway bulb.

Pow! the lock is blown out by the air gun, hitting Llewelyn in the chest.

His instant reaction is to fire right through the door.

Now is the time for him to leave by the window.

The scene reinforces what we know about Llewelyn. His circumstances in life may be strictly working class (he is an unemployed welder, he lives in a double-wide trailer with his wife, Carla Jean, who works at Walmart) but he has two things going for him (or against, depending on your point of view): he’s brave, and once he’s caught on he knows his adversary won’t give up until he is dead. It answers the question we have been asking. Why, when he realizes Chiguhr is on to him because of the transponder and is in the hotel with him, doesn’t he just go through the window and run?

Well, for one thing it isn’t the kind of guy Llewelyn is. He wants the money, and knows that until he kills Chiguhr the killer will remain a threat, hot on his tail.

What follows this scene is an action sequence. Lots of shots are fired, there are car wrecks and the hero escapes by mere inches. The follow-up to the action shows how tenacious Chiguhr is. Although struck in the leg by Llewelyn’s gunshot, Chiguhr creates a diversion. He steals medical supplies from a pharmacy and later in his motel room does surgery on his own leg.

Chiguhr's malevolence pours out on him, as we see in this early scene of him picking a quarrel with a hapless elderly gas station attendant.

Tommy Lee Jones, as “Ed Tom,” the sheriff, is listed as the star of the movie, but really the core of the movie is a chase film with Llewelyn and Chiguhr, and Ed Tom kind of follows along behind, trying to figure it all out.

 Jones has carved out his place in movies, but he doesn’t create any surprises in this performance. He’s homespun and folksy, deliberate in his actions.

No Country is the first movie I ever saw with Bardem, and understood then why he was a star in Europe. Brolin reminds me a lot of Jeff Bridges. He’s second generation as an actor; Bridges' father is Lloyd Bridges, Brolin's father is James Brolin. Like Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin has become a genuine presence in movies with a lot of range, and  a genuine presence on screen.

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