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No. 9: “No Country for Old Men” (2007)

“Well, all the time you spend trying to get back what’s been took from you, more is going out the door. After awhile you just have to try to get a tourniquet on it.” ~~Ellis

There’s this thing that Joel and Ethan Coen, directors of “No Country for Old Men,” understand that so few filmmakers do: It’s the quiet films that pack the biggest punch. Not that “No Country” is a quiet film, exactly. There’s action aplenty, including several tense shootouts and a few point-blank assassinations; blood spillage is at a premium. But it’s the bone-dry dialogue, the sideways glances, the eerie periods of silence that make “No Country” so unsettling, so revealing. For these characters, silence means much more than words ever could and it’s thrilling and brilliant to watch.

And so “No Country for Old Men” begins quietly, with personable but jaded West Texas Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (a first-rate Tommy Lee Jones) explaining how the things he’s seen have changed him, put his “soul at hazard.” Bell is a wise man who has seen everything but used his laconic wit to keep the danger from warping his soul. But he soon meets a bizarre crew of characters who aren’t quite so wise. Enter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a struggling cowboy who, while hunting one afternoon, stumbles onto a drug deal gone awry. Nearly everyone is dead (even the dog) except for a dying man demanding water, and there’s an abandoned truck loaded down with Mexican brown. Moss finds a briefcase full of money under a shade tree and takes off. But his conscience wakes him up later that night, and he returns to the shootout scene with a jug of water.

This, of course, is a colossal mistake, and one that turns “No Country for Old Men” into an unflinching, unforgiving game of hide, seek, kill. Now Moss has placed himself squarely in the sights of Anton Chigurh (a chillingly blank Javier Bardem), a psychopathic killer who wants the drug money back at any cost. This foolish decision sets in motion a chain of events — “you can’t stop what’s coming,” Bell’s father Ellis (Barry Corbin) observes — that winds its way to a finale that offers up not the tiniest bit of closure.

“No Country for Old Men,” adapted by the Coen brothers from an even more bleak Cormac McCarthy novel, is relentless in its pacing. The film never, ever lets up. Every moment is packed with tension, and audience anxiety only grows as it becomes clear that no character, not even Sheriff Bell, can see what’s coming his way. Relentless, too, is the bracing black humor that pervades the Coen brothers’ deadpan script. There’s a scene where a leery Moss, who’s hiding out at a fleabag motel, agrees to have a beer with a woman he meets poolside. She assures him: “The only thing beer leads to is more beer.” What happens next is textbook Coen. Better still is the conversation between Chigurh and a cashier, which draws shudders when it becomes obvious the men are talking about more than a coin toss. Coen regular Roger Deakins amps up this tension with his expansive camera work; he creates a vivid landscape that moves and breathes.

Yet the dialogue would fall flat without the right performances, and every one of them is faultless. Jones hits a career-best as Bell, turning what could have been an “aw shucks” Barney Fife into a sad and vulnerable character. Brolin finds the right mix of bravado and fear in Moss. Kelly Macdonald makes the most of her role as Moss’s dim-witted but loving wife. As for Bardem, well, he’s so good at being scary scarier than “bubonic plague,” as one character observes, that it’s possible to forget his most unfortunate bob haircut. With a compressed-air cattle stun gun in hand, he just might be the nastiest, scariest villain ever to swagger onscreen. He’s a sneaky one.

Such is the way of “No Country for Old Men.” By Coen design the film sneaks up on you, burrows its way, chigger-like, under your skin like a chigger and stays there. You don’t feel the sting until it’s far, far too late to pull back.

Nimble “Zombieland” a bloody good time

Be vewwy, vewwy quiet: Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) are huntin' zombies.

Be vewwy, vewwy quiet: Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) are huntin' zombies.

No matter how intelligent, urbane and evolved we humans fancy ourselves, there’s just no getting around it: Nothing beats watching a slobbering, crusty, stinking zombie get his skull smashed with a mallet. Or a baseball bat. Or a tire iron. Why is this so  satisfying? Because zombies, you see, exist solely to get murdalized.

And boy do they ever in “Zombieland,” a gonzo, bloody, ridiculously entertaining movie about a world overrun with mindless flesh-eaters and the two wildly different survivors — Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), zombie killer extraordinaire, and the timid Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) — who join forces more out of sheer boredom than any desire for human companionship. They are, we assume, the only humans to survive the fallout of a brain-swelling disease passed through cattle meat. And Tallahassee and Columbus kill a lot of zombies. Heaps of them. The hulking morons get slaughtered in such gleefully creative ways it makes me wonder if Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who penned the script, are brilliantly inventive or just didn’t get out much. It matters not. The kills (no, I’m not going to list them for you) are what make “Zombieland” wicked good.

Know what else makes “Zombieland” so entertaining? The characters, which sneak up on you in the midst of all those inventive ZKs (some are clear contenders for Zombie Kill of the Week). There’s something sweet and touching about the shy Columbus’ self-awareness; it’s obvious he understands that he let his fear — of girls, of clowns, of  life — cut off avenues for connection and emotional intimacy. Eisenberg, who should have Michael Cera quaking in his vintage cargo pants, drops these verbal bombshells with just the right amount of frankness and regret. “The first girl I let into my life and she tries to eat me,” he laments when he realizes his hot neighbor has morphed into a zombie. There’s far more bittersweet candor in this line than there has to be in a movie about lumbering liver-chewers and the people who blast ’em.

But back to the blasting. Columbus has managed to survive just fine using his rules, which include such gems as stressing the importance of cardio (“the fatties are the first to go”), the double tap (“don’t be afraid to use your ammunition”) and the perils of public restrooms. Tallahassee isn’t that cerebral. He’s a loner with nothing to lose and a mean hankering for Twinkies, and he’s transformed zombie killing into an art form. (Notice his nod to “Deliverance.” It’s thing of beauty.) These two make for an unusual pair, and their unconventional family gets even weirder when they happen upon Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), two sisters who share a talent for working the short con. All four head off in search of a place where zombies don’t dwell, and along the way they end up in the posh home of the Greatest Movie Star in History.

(INTERJECTION: If there’s still a chance as small as a zombie’s IQ that you don’t know about the cameo, do NOT let anyone ruin it for you. Turn off your TV and Internet and radio, go all Howard Hughes and hoard tissue boxes to avoid genuine human contact — do whatever you have to do preserve the blessed element of surprise.)

So the body count and the gore, right? Completely disgusting, thoroughly enjoyable and mostly devoid of any of the sociopolitical commentary George Romero made famous. Nope, “Zombieland” is all about the sheer, unbridled joy of undead killin’, and it takes human form inTallahassee, played with characteristic drawl and zeal by Harrelson. (See, Christian Bale? Acting can be fun!) But the writers pepper in plenty of deadpan humor, and they make some half-hearted noise about how we should conquer our fears, learn to need people, seize the day. This touchy-feely stuff might seem out of place if not for Eisenberg, who gives “Zombieland” the very last thing anyone would expect: a heart. 

Grade: B+