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Both films show their estimable directors at the top of their respective games, and each features a performance by an actor that seems headed for a likely, and well deserved, Oscar nomination.

The evil that men do: No Country for Old Men and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead 

Two tough crime films open, from past masters the Coen Brothers and Sidney Lumet

click to enlarge Josh Brolin and his gun in No Country for Old Men - PHOTO BY RICHARD FOREMAN/ MIRAMAX
  • Photo by Richard Foreman/ Miramax
  • Josh Brolin and his gun in No Country for Old Men

Though it's surely a coincidence that the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men and Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead are opening locally on the same weekend, viewers will have to decide if the coincidence is a happy one or not.

On the positive side, both films show their estimable directors at the top of their respective games, and each features a performance by an actor—Javier Bardem in No Country, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Before the Devil—that seems headed for a likely, and well deserved, Oscar nomination. (Hoffman's main competition may be himself: He's also terrific in Tamara Jenkins' upcoming The Savages.)

The potential downside of this match-up is indicated by the fact that in these movies Bardem and Hoffman both play brutal killers. If you were in the mood for a little light comedy or a Jane Austen costumer at the local artplex this weekend, forget it. These films don't even offer the playful jokiness of Tarantino-style violence. Their violence is harsh, in-your-face and unforgiving.

As for which film is better, I must confess that I liked them almost equally—which is to say quite a lot, though with reservations that have nothing essential to do with their violence. If you have the stomach for the gore they contain, both are worth seeing.

In settings and style they are worlds apart. Based on Cormac McCarthy's novel, No Country takes place in 1980 near the Tex-Mex border, a land of desolate horizons, air-conditioned mobile homes and motels decorated with neon cacti. The Coens survey this terrain and mount the tale's intricately bloody action with a sinuous, hypnotic formalism worthy of Alfred Hitchcock.

Before the Devil transpires in New York, though less in vertical Manhattan than in suburban, shopping-mall parts of Westchester that might as well be Pittsburgh or Topeka. Octogenarian Lumet, whose movie career began a half-century ago with Twelve Angry Men, directs with an edgy urban energy that recalls his own Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City and Q&A.

But the movies are separated most of all by what they make of a common, archetypal premise: the spiraling consequences of greed. Before the Devil narrow-focuses on a troubled (the old-school term for dysfunctional) family and comes away with a tale that is at once penetratingly psychological and persuasively moral. No Country, meanwhile, takes the familiar outline of a suspense thriller and attempts to push it from the generic to the mythic and even the metaphysical.

No Country's opening is unforgettable largely because the evidence of brutality it contains is both mysterious and visually striking. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a young, blue-collar Texan, is out hunting when he sees a broken circle of vehicles becalmed on a plain. A century or more ago, this might have been a wagon train full of scalped settlers. Here it's a bunch of shot-up SUVs surrounded by several dead or dying Mexicans.

In the back of one vehicle Moss finds several pounds of heroin, which he leaves in place. A short distance away he finds another body and a case containing millions in cash. He takes the money. And runs.

The Coens' film intercuts Moss' flight from the various folks who want that money with story strands centered on two other characters. Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is a longtime, world-weary lawman who, once he finds the dead Mexicans and evidence of Moss' presence, sets to work on the case. Yet Bell is perhaps less important for his law-enforcement doggedness than for his jaundiced ruminations on the increasingly screwed-up state of the world.

Evidence of that precipitous decline takes human form in Anton Chigurh (Bardem), who we first see strangling a deputy to death with his handcuffs. Though only one of many people after Moss and the money he's swiped, Chigurh is singular in his adeptness and dedication to violence. A merciless killing machine, a cool psycho who never raises his voice or gets excited, he murders one person after another in No Country. With Chigurh in the rearview mirror, Moss looks like a man whose days are decidedly numbered.

click to enlarge Marisa Tomei in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead - PHOTO COURTESY OF THINK FILM COMPANY

Before the Devil's plunge into criminal desperation is less spectacular, but no less vertiginous. A robbery at a strip-mall jewelry store goes awry, leaving the robber dead on the sidewalk and a store worker badly wounded inside. As the film hop-scotches back and forth through time, we see what led to the botched crime.

Andy Hanson (Hoffman) and his brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) are siblings whose main bond is money trouble. Their parents were jewelers who did well enough to move to the suburbs, and no doubt hoped their boys would grow up to have prosperous, respectable lives. No such luck.

Andy, a real-estate accountant, has been playing fast and loose with the company money, dreaming of moving to Brazil and stoking a world-class smack habit. He doesn't suspect that his wife (Marisa Tomei) is sleeping with Hank, who has an angry ex-wife and a little daughter. Knowing that they're both in financial straits, brash, bullying Andy imposes on his weak younger sibling to set up a robbery of their parents' store.

The thing is, Hank is supposed to do the job himself and the store's supposed to contain an employee. But Hank decides to drive the getaway car and enlists a small-time hood to enter the shop. Inside, the hood shoots the person actually there—the Hansons' mother Nanette (Rosemary Harris).

When Nanette goes to the hospital unconscious and horribly wounded, the Hanson family goes into freefall. Andy and Hank must face not only the perilous consequences of their crime but also the uncomprehending rage and grief of their father, Charles (Albert Finney).When this point arrives, Before the Devil makes a sudden turn, from a gritty genre piece into the closest thing to a genuine tragedy I've seen in an American film in ages. The emotions it touches are primal and wrenching at both the heart and the gut levels. In the most commendable ways, the film here recalls that Lumet started out professionally in New York in the 1940s and 1950s, when such searing interrogations of American life were the mark of true seriousness in the theater and the novel, and were not unknown even in television and movies.

My main quibble with Before the Devil is that it doesn't follow its tragic arc all the way to the nadir. In discussing Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton recently, I noted the various trendy ways screenwriters have been playing with narrative of late. Kelly Masterson's script for Before the Devil adopts the Scrambled Chronology model: It keeps jumping all over the place time-wise, returning to scenes and actions already seen to show them from another angle.

The device isn't totally purposeless—sometimes meaning does accrue in the time twists—but ultimately it struck me as overused and a bit tiresome. And it contributes to a dissipation of the story's tragic force toward the end, when the focus remains on Andy while Hank—the more sensitive and vulnerable of the two—awkwardly and inexplicably drifts out of the frame.

In a sense, the focus on Andy is understandable. He is a uniquely repugnant and screwed-up human being, and Hoffman's bold, unstinting performance makes him a character of indelible fascinations, normal enough to be slightly sympathetic, but so deranged as to be truly menacing. Yet this is a family story finally, and privileging one character even slightly undercuts the collective analysis as the tale approaches its conclusion.

Bardem's Chigurh dominates No Country in ways that are different but ultimately problematic, too. I have no doubt that the Coens' film will be more popular—and critically lauded—than Lumet's, in large part because it avoids the tragic interpersonal insights of Before the Devil and instead offers a very smart and stylistically seductive version of many standard pleasures and tropes of Hollywood chase thrillers, including the chilling villain embodied by Bardem.

The Spanish actor is truly a master, whose large eyes, chiseled countenance and stoic reserve make Chigurh a monster suitable both for the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list and your scariest nightmares. Yet that's where my problems with him begin. For most of the movie, Chigurh is a terrifying character yet an essentially believable one. By the end, he's something else: a symbol of Evil Incarnate, as abstract and otherworldly as Freddy Krueger.

Can such a theoretical construct, without weakness or failing or any recognizable human flaw, really represent the forces that lay waste to individual lives? Cormac McCarthy evidently thinks so, and the Coens—whose films usually have more humor than is seen here—follow his lead. I have my doubts. To me, Chigurh fails when he emerges as a self-evident literary/movie creation, an idea rather than a person.

Both Before the Devil and No Country deal forcefully with the reality of evil in the world around us. While Lumet's film sees evil as an age-old product of the human character and the social conditions it fosters, McCarthy and the Coens' apocalyptic vision imagines a Satanic force rampaging across our land like an unstoppable killer, implicitly dragging America toward an inexorable destruction. Though I find the former view more persuasive, the two films are similarly challenging and timely in posing tough questions about the blood on American hands and minds.

No Country for Old Men and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead open Wednesday throughout the Triangle.

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