NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN: 3-Disc Collector’s Edition

| April 7, 2009

“You can’t stop what’s coming,” Ellis tells the Sheriff, deep into No Country For Old Men’s barren, abandon-all-hope backstretch. As potent quotables go, it ain’t exactly “Here’s looking at you, kid.” But this sobering little nugget of advice does provide the Coen Brothers’ dusty desert noir with its summative catchphrase—not to mention, to every Oscar pundit worth his (meritless) batting average, a wink-wink metaphor for the film’s inevitable Best Picture victory. When the Big Night came, there was no stopping No Country, which steamrolled its way to the center of the Academy’s winners circle, nabbing a shudder-inducing Javier Bardem his first golden statuette and the film’s Minnesota-born, sibling auteurs three of their own. The movie seemed, at the time, like a pretty unconventional favorite. A year later, with Slumdog Millionaire offering up a kind of rose-tinted, life-affirming counterpoint (add a touch of the ominous, and “You can’t stop what’s coming” conveys pretty much the same sentiment as “It is written”) one has to wonder how anything as rough, tough and uncompromisingly bleak ever won the uplift-horny hearts of AMPAS’ voting bloc. Beating the odds, winning the girl and getting filthy rich, vs. dying a gruesome death, alone and offscreen, in the scorched-black heart of the Texas desert? What a difference a year can make.
An aberration, that’s what No Country For Old Men is. Not just as an unlikely award winner, but also, given the all-too-familiar, jokey nihilism of their encore number, Burn After Reading, something of a superbly grave stopgap in the career trajectory of the Brothers Coen. It’s Cormac McCarthy’s weighty text, one might venture, that brings out the best in these technically proficient film brats. Joel and Ethan, sans their trademark irony, faithfully render the beat-by-beat specifics of McCarthy’s razor-sharp narrative, about the protracted cat-and-mouse struggle between an on the lam, cipher cowboy (Josh Brolin), his psychotic pursuer (Bardem), and the weary, aged lawman taking the hindmost (Tommy Lee Jones). This is inherently cinematic material, perfectly suited to the Coens’ detail-oriented, loud-quiet-loud aesthetic, a point that comes up early and often on the new No Country For Old Men: 3-Disc Collector’s Edition.
“It read like a treatment,” recalls Jones of McCarthy’s vivid novel, in an anecdote tucked into the 25-minute “Making Of” featurette that accompanies the movie on Disc One. Carried over from last year’s single-disc release and featuring interviews from most of the cast and crew, the documentary proves as matter-of-fact informative as Jones’s Ed Tom Bell. Rounding out the first disc are “Working with the Coens,” wherein the brothers’ rep for being a “two-headed friend” (as Kelly MacDonald adorably puts it) is dutifully reinforced; and “Diary of a Country Sheriff,” which puts some additional focus on Tommy Lee’s mournful sheriff, the film’s de facto, one man Greek Chorus. Both extras might have been truncated and successfully folded into the larger doc.
Conspicuously absent is any sort of commentary track, though there’s enough interview footage on Disc Two to fill the supplemental void. (Deleted scenes also fail to make an appearance, though I’d mainly chalk that up to the Coens’ “shoot everything we need and nothing more” ethos.) It takes a few minutes to catch on to the tongue-in-cheek intentions of Josh Brolin’s “unauthorized” Behind-the-Scenes featurette, so dryly does it intentionally mirror the form and content of the “real” production doc on Disc One. Amusingly positing the idiosyncratic writer/directors as a pair of insufferable control freaks—Bardem’s deadpan “wrist” story is a hilarious highlight—it’s a lengthy goof that feels like a welcome reprieve from the hours and hours of promotional interviews that otherwise comprise the Bonus Disc. Completists will likely swoon over this wellspring of media coverage and on-set anecdotes, whilst iPod junkies can rejoice over Disc Three, a digital copy of the entire film.
In the wake of a magic, awards season run, this multi-disc special edition feels like something of a victory lap, for the Coens and their collaborators. No matter: the movie itself is worth the hubbub. Via a pristine transfer, No Country For Old Men retains every shade of its mesmerizing power: the days look as bright and sweltering as ever, the nights as terrifyingly pitch black, while the film’s impeccable sound design—long stretches of unsettling silence, explosive gun shots, the thud of footsteps, the hiss of canister gas, the grizzled gravity of Jones’s cracked baritone—remains intact. (Those with a BluRay player, take note: this is the kind of aesthetic tour de force the technology was created to illuminate.) If there’s a missed opportunity in this package, it’s the lack of any critical commentary on the film’s biggest controversy, that third act shocker that many (mistakenly) took as the deal breaking misstep in an otherwise impeccable genre exercise. Yet it’s that very turn, ripped directly from McCarthy’s tome and chased by an appropriately somber denouement, that transforms the film from a savagely efficient crime thriller to a profoundly subversive meditation on the senseless fragility of life itself. That makes it, I suppose, yet another kind of aberration: a death clock that mourns its own existence. I suspect it’ll be quite a while before we see another of those sitting pretty atop AMPAS’ awards heap.

About the Author:

Jon Bastian Jon is a playwright and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles, where he has been currently appearing in Flash Theater LA when not working for Cesar Millan to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.
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