Friday 4 April 2008

No Country for the Young and the Middle-aged

As we drove home last night after No Country For Old Men I quizzed my 18-year old daughter about her partiality for the Coen Brothers. It turns out that she's watched everything they've ever done except for Blood Simple (though she's dug out an old VHS recording that she plans to watch tomorrow) and Barton Fink which she's put on our Lovefilm rental list. I asked her how she rated No Country. She said she admired it but missed the characteristic wackiness of some of their other films. Fargo would probably go at the top of her list. She also thought Intolerable Cruelty, slated for being slight and Hollywood-orientated and probably too for starring Catherine Zeta-Jones as well as George Clooney, was underrated.

A was telling me more about the Coen's symbiotic working relationship. Joel's contribution to their Oscar acceptance speech for Best Direction seems to sum things up nicely: "Ethan and I have been making stories with movie cameras since we were kids. In the late '60s when Ethan was 11 or 12, he got a suit and a briefcase and we went to the Minneapolis International Airport with a Super 8 camera and made a movie about shuttle diplomacy called 'Henry Kissinger, Man on the Go.' And honestly, what we do now doesn't feel that much different from what we were doing then."

One thing we did agree on was what a supremely assured, understated piece of cinema No Country is. No self-consciousness or flim-flam whatsoever. And we ended up talking about specifics rather than generalities: the way light is used to generate suspense - the barely perceptible glow of car headlamps below the brow of the hill when Llewelyn Moss returns to the scene of the shoot out after dark or the watch for a break in light under the door of a hotel bedroom that indicates that someone is just out side. And the meticulous detail and pacing of the way certain tasks are carried out by two of the main characters, the dressing of a wound, the hiding of a briefcase, the determining of someone's fate. Superb, experienced film-making. The cinematography (Roger Deakins, British) isn't bad either!


BLURT said...

From David Gillam:

Superb, experienced film-making it may be - but what did No Country for Old Men actually amount to? There didn't really seem to be any depth to the film. Certainly the idea that there might be some sort of look at how American society has been formed by cruel men and a hostile environment didn't come through at all. Despite the suggestion of the opening monologue and the final scene between the wonderful Tommy Lee (where would the film be without his battered face?) and the old man who recounts a cruel frontier tale - to suggest that men enjoying other's pain and suffering is always with us. Yes, the meticulous way in which certain tasks were carried out had a certain fascination, built suspense, and grounded the film in the real - but all that comes from Cormac McCarthy's book and is one of his great strengths as a writer (if you want to try him, I would really recommend All the Pretty Horses - the first of his Border trilogy of which No Country is the last). As a Coen Brothers fan, particularly of Fargo, Oh Brother Where Art Thou and The Big Lebowski, where the comedy sugars the pill of some deeper truths, I felt that, though I enjoyed it greatly, No Country didn't really leave much to chew on after the lights went up. I would suggest because, once you've set up the psychopathic Banderas character there's really nowhere to go, no character arc for him - a psychopath is ultimately a dead end. The scene in the gas station where his character is being established has a palpable sense of tension after that he rapidly becomes a killing machine and in some ways is no more interesting than The Terminator. But then fate . . . that's another thing all together.

Anonymous said...

As a fan of pretty much every Coens' movie (some less so than others, admittedly) I also found myself asking questions about No Country For Old Men. Not because I thought the film was insubstantial, but because most of what it did offer was present in McCarthy's brilliant book. It seemed strange to me that the Coen brothers, so deserving of praise from filmgoers and critics alike, should receive so much of it for a film which carries comparatively little of their imprint.

McCarthy's book is an excellent meditation on the omnipresence of violence in human society and Chigur is written as a wonderfully blank, imperceptable avatar for that. I thought that Bardem (did you type Banderas by mistake, or to conjur up some horrific vision in which this film is directed by Robert Rodriguez?) was excellent, but it was always going to be difficult to bring that character to screen without provoking a lot of questions about his motives, his past etc.

In the end I thought it was a brilliant film, and deserving of all the praise it got. However, the novel is so strong that it left the Coens with very little to do. Good casting and excellent cinematography from Deakins (it was his year this year with In The Valley of Elah and The Assassinatioon of Jesse James... also looking particularly beautiful) took care of the rest. As much as I loved the movie I would also recommend the book (though it isn't the third part of the Border trilogy, that was Cities of the Plain), and I'm tempted to say that Joel and Ethan should think about handing over their Oscars to P.T. Anderson.

Trekker said...

I hesitate to remind the esteemed David Gillam that the last of McCarthy's Border trilogy is 'Cities of the Plain'; 'No Country ...' is a separate short. (The middle one of the trilogy is 'The Crossing.')
However I agree with him about the lack of impact of the film, despite greatly enjoying it. McCarthy is about the inevitability of struggle, life as the myth of Sisyphus with no way out for any of us. Unfortunately the Coens followed the obvious narrative rather than Tommy Lee Jones' character's hope of a life fulfilled, a trajectory not granted his father. For McCarthy the only meaning is the struggle itself; don't expect redemption.