Monday, February 25, 2008

No Country For Old Men

Signs and Wonders

Llewelyn Moss is out on the Texas veldt tracking a caribou he shot, following the blood-trail when it is suddenly crossed by another blood-trail. Following it, he finds a drug-deal gone bad--five vehicles, and several dead Latinos, a truck-bed full of cocaine and eventually a satchel filled with stacks of of money, $10,000 to a stack. Fate is good to him.

Anton Chigurh is hunting, too. He needs a vehicle, and as he's driving a stolen police car, he can pull over anyone he chooses. He walks over to the driver side of the car, carrying a gas canister and a nozzle. "Get out of the vehicle," he says. And the driver complies. "Hold still, please, sir," he says, and the driver complies. He points the nozzle at the man's forehead and fires.

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell has been Sheriff of Terrell County since he was 26 years old, and that was a long time ago. You'd think he'd seen everything, but he's beginning to wonder if such a thing is possible. Looking over that drug deal gone bad while horse-back, he surmises the way things went down. "That's very linear, Sheriff," says his deputy. "Age'll flatten a man, Wendell," he not particularly replies.

The first time I'd heard of the Coen Brothers was a Time Magazine review of their first movie "Blood Simple." When it wound up being featured at the Seattle Film Festival I went, expecting great things and their quirky ways of telling a story, like that travelling shot (by future director Barry Sonenfeld) that glided over a bar-top, rising up and over a fallen bar-fly. But what I wasn't expecting was a sequence that is one of my favorite in all of film, and is such an obvious thing to do, I wondered why nobody'd thought of it before. Ray has just murdered his lover's husband and stashed him in the back-seat of his car to take him someplace remote to bury him. But as he drives the long, flat Texas highway at night, the corpse behind him moans and moves. He slams on his brakes, pulls to the side of the road and runs...runs in a panic to get away, into a field. He runs into the dark until he stops, panting in fright and exertion. He stands there, looking back at the car. Now what? He's "safe." He got away. but he's no better off than he was before. He has to go back. And he especially has to go back before another car or truck approach and bathe the scene in light.

He has no idea what he'll find when he goes back there, but back he must go. It's the center of the Big Undecipherable that is the heart of the Coen brothers' movies--when people start to ask "how did I get here? And how do I come out, if I can't go back?" There's no going back to Square One with the Coen's. There is only the going-forward, head up or head bowed.

In its way, "No Country for Old Men" has bits of other Coen movies all over it. The "cat-and-mouse" games of "Blood Simple." The airy philosophy of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" The sharply written common dialog of all their films. The questioning law officer with philosophical questions of "Fargo," the "what's it all worth" tragedy of "Miller's Crossing," and "Barton Fink." It stands as a good primer for all that is good in their work.

Is it their best work? The "Masterpiece" that it's been touted as? Hard to say. There seems to be a decided effort on their part to NOT make it that, to undercut the impact that the film could have had had they been more direct, hit things on the nose, as they say, rather than leaving things unsaid and perhaps confounding their audience. They've left room for interpretation and controversy, to make one think about the importance of dreams, of Fate and Destiny. One has to review the film that is, not the film that could've been. And "No Country," as is, has some exquisite cinematography (by Roger Deakins--night shooting has never looked more convincing or as beautiful as here), note-perfect performances by just about everybody in the cast, but especially all the leads--not just Tommy Lee Jones, and Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin, but also Tess Harper (where's she been?), Woody Harrelson, Stephen Root, and Barry Corbin.

What makes "No Country for Old Men" different from the other Coen movies is a departure from the insular, claustrophobic worlds they have presented in the past. Before the films never strayed beyond the orbits of the main characters of their films--the surroundings filled with extras were there as filler. But this feels like a fuller world, a complete world, where every character has worth and life seems to be going on beyond the frame. That's new, and it will be interesting to see where this aspect of their film-making will take them.

It is not as fully realized a vision as "Raising Arizona," or "Fargo," or even "The Big Lebowski." It is not as accessible as "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" But it far outshines such experiments in style as "Barton Fink," "The Hudsucker Proxy," "The Man Who Wasn't There," or "Intolerable Cruelty." "No Country for Old Men" is a stellar summing-up of where the Coen's have been, even if it doesn't quite rise above it. But the expanded universe of theirs--the more full world they present here--presages bigger and better films still to come.

"No Country for Old Men" is a full-price ticket.


John said...

As a huge fan of the Coen Brothers, I admit to classifying their films into three categories (in terms of quality):

The Duds: Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy

The Very Good (in order of best to worst): Fargo, The Man Who Wasn't There, Oh Brother, Barton Fink, Blood Simple, Intolerable Cruelty

And the downright brilliant: Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men.

Yojimbo_5 said...

BY your breakdowns:
Duds: Hudsucker Proxy, Barton Fink

VG (B->W): No Country for Old Men,
Oh, Brother, Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, Intolerable Cruelty, The Man Who Wasn't There

B: The Big Lebowski, Fargo, Raising Arizona.

I find their movies break down into movies of substance and movies of style. The ones that have a style and a story that's more of a shared joke than a story are duds, and The Man who Wasn't There comes mighty close.

No love for "Raising Arizona?" I suspect it's a "I don't like Nicolas Cage" thing--it's the first movie I saw his potential in. It's also hysterically funny. An extremely formal directing job for a story that couldn't be more messy.

I thought "Barton Fink" was a long indulgent way to go to slam Clifford Odets (who was a creep, but c'mon!)

John said...

John Turturo is 100x better than Nick Cage... so you're right... it is more of an "actor preference" thing. I just didn't find Raising Arizona to be funny.

Yojimbo_5 said... don't want to see Turturro in "Transformers," then...reminded me of Cage's early "off-the-planet" work.

RA has the style and timing of a Road-runner cartoon, with Cage as Wile E. Coyote.

I'd re-visit.