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Despite the star power of Tommy Lee Jones in front of the camera and the critical pedigree of the Coen Brothers behind it, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN would seem to be just another run-of-the-mill crime drama. The plot - Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) steals a fortune in cash from some drug dealers, and is then pursued by assorted lowlifes and hit men - is certainly as stale a storyline as can be, having been seen in everything ranging from forgettable B-movies to bigger-budget Hollywood films like A SIMPLE PLAN. But COUNTRY elevates what could have been just standard genre fare into great entertainment by doing three things very, very right.

The first thing it does right is to deliver on one of the etched-in-stone maxims of screenwriting: a strong villain makes for a strong movie. And the hit man pursuing Brolin, Anton Chigurh (played by Spanish superstar Javier Bardem) is certainly one of the strongest and most memorable villains to hit the screen in recent memory. Chigurh is so cunning, so implacable, so focused (he never seems to blink his eyes for fear of losing sight of his prey), he's almost like the embodiment of death itself, and just as unrelenting in his quest to kill anyone in his way with the most unusual and horrifying murder weapon possible - a cattle gun that uses compressed air to shoot metal bolts into the brain. When Chigurh is on screen, we're filled with sheer terror, and when he's not on screen, we're filled with utter dread over when he's going to return - both of which keep us riveted to our seats. Better still, Bardem avoids the hammy, over-the-top villainy of a Dennis Hopper or a Jack Nicholson, which grows less scary the more you see of it, and goes for a more quiet menace, with a low-key manner and faintly sinister smile that never fails to make you break out in a terrified sweat. Bardem's deadpan delivery also produces some of the film's funniest moments, as the Coens use Chigurh's lack of a sense of humor to ironically generate the humor that leavens the often grim, bloody goings-on.

The second thing COUNTRY does right is to subvert audience expectations. Cinema is barely a century old, but moviegoers have seen just about every kind of plot there is. And if a plot is predictable, you can be sure that those same moviegoers will lose interest fast and let loose with a tsunami of bad word-of-mouth to their family and friends about it. As mentioned above, COUNTRY has a very trite plot, even for a Hollywood that seems to be getting more formulaic in its offerings every year. But COUNTRY has a literary ace up its sleeve as well, since the film is adapted from a novel written by the Pulitzer-Prize winning Cormac McCarthy. This means that not only are the characterizations vivid and the dialogue sharp, but also there is enough twisting of genre conventions that the initially stale storyline becomes much more inventive as it goes along. For instance, the expected mano a mano showdown between protagonist Brolin and antagonist Bardem is resolved in a completely original way - I'd say more but I'd be spoiling all the fun. The numerous subversions enliven the rather musty plot and create a constant sense of unpredictability that will keep audiences happily off-balance.

Also making COUNTRY resonate more than your typical slam-bang crime drama are the scenes that take time out from the chase plot to allow Jones' disillusioned sheriff to comment on how greed leads to alienation, and alienation leads to heartlessness, and heartlessness leads to the endless, brutal violence that seems to be tearing the social fabric of America apart. A theme like this gives the story a philosophical weight that puts COUNTRY on the level of great art, not just great entertainment.

Responses, comments and general two-cents worth can be E-mailed to gillis662000@yahoo.com.

(Note: For all those who missed my past reviews, they're now archived on Hollywoodlitsales.com. Just click the link on the main page and it'll take you to the Inner Sanctum. Love them or Hate them at your leisure!)

A graduate of USC's School of Cinema-Television, Tom McCurrie has worked as a development executive, story analyst, screenwriter and teacher of screenwriting. He lives in Los Angeles and is finally finishing up a really awesome novel.


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