Chandler, Arizona, United States

There's an old saying. If you don't want someone to join a crowd, you ask them, "If everyone were jumping off of a cliff, would you?" Well, I have. So my answer would be "Yes". True story.
Profile continued . . .

Review of No Country For Old Men

Saturday, May 24, 2008

this entry brought to you by the black keys, "i got mine"

In Ridley Scott's original intention for the ending of Alien, he has said, the Alien would have bitten Ripley's head off in the escape pod, sat down at the controls, and, in a human voice, announced to Earth that he was setting coordinates to arrive. This would've made for an extremely unsatisfying ending to Alien. No Country For Old Men is a lot like that hypothetical ending to Alien-- the climax to No Country For Old Men happens off-screen, and the movie ends with a character reciting a dream that cuts right before the credits role. It is an intentionally challenging climax and ending, one that you will barely hear the dialog being said because your mind will be reeling, trying to comprehend that what happened did in fact just happen. The ending isn't obtuse in a David Lynch way, but in an abrupt, car accident kind of way, if you can imagine going from that to immediately listening to an old man pondering how things are worse now than when he was younger.

It's not that this is a bad ending. It's a weird ending. It's a challenging ending. And, lest you think that the Coen Brothers simply didn't know how to end their movie, it's exactly the way it happens in Cormac McCarthy's novel-- in fact, if anything, the movie is actually slightly clearer. McCarthy's book pulls a bait and switch; the main story is intermittently broken with a narration by Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones in the movie) telling a story about what it was like being a sheriff in the old days, so when it cuts back into the central story, the chaos that comes along with the drug trade and Bell's inability to change any of it contrasts the old days. But when the main story is told and done, the story moves back and settles on Bell, and he becomes the main character for the final few chapters as he contemplates his place in history. Essentially, McCarthy himself becomes the character, and ruminates on The Way Things Used to Be. It smells slightly of old man lamenting, but within the context of the story, makes an odd sort of sense-- what better way to show that a man reaches a certain age and has no place in the world, than by contrasting the past, when things were simpler, with the present, where a single man really makes no difference?

The movie doesn't focus as much on Bell, doesn't intersperse its main story with Bell's anecdotes, and focuses very firmly on the main story, with Bell a side character oblivious as to what it is he is supposed to do. In fact, the main story seems to be tailor made by the Coens, as if the novel should have said "Story by the Coen Brothers and Cormac McCarthy", or as if McCarthy had the Coens' filmography on constant repeat in the background. The story shares many themes the Coens love, including everyday men in way over their heads, greed, the chaos that can grow from what sounds like a simple idea, and a singularly odd madman who will go to insane lengths to get an object. Llewelyn Moss is an ex-Vietnam vet working construction in a shit-hole town in Texas. Out hunting one day, he comes across a scene of a drug deal gone horribly wrong, with all parties involved shot to hell. Moss finds a suitcase full of two million dollars, and with no one around for miles to see him do it, without much of a thought takes it and heads home. What he doesn't know is that there's a tracking device inside the briefcase, which brings us to Anton Chigurh, an assassin hired by a drug lord to get his money back. What the drug lord didn't count on is that Chigurh is a complete psychopath who kills with very little discrimination, and bodies very quickly start piling up, which is where Sheriff Bell comes in.

The Coens are masters of this type of story and have told it several times before, but it's as if most of their previous movies were practice for this one, because No Country For Old Men is head-swimmingly deft and intense, with expert amounts of quiet stillness mixed equally with explosive, gut-wrenching violence (with just sprinkle of humor to keep us afloat). But where other movies like the Bourne trilogy use deliberately shaky, frenetic camerawork to get across the feeling of chaos, No Country uses incredibly fluid, smooth shots so that everything flows with crystal clarity-- this film has cinematography that is in the class with the best of them, and is gorgeously edited, creating a masterfully told story. The acting is universally excellent. I'd seen Josh Brolin before and didn't put much thought into him; he was a fine actor, sure, but nothing to write home about. But here he gives a breakout performance, giving Moss just enough of a cocksure swagger to make you feel like he'll actually get away with it in the end, but has something in him that seems very much like just a good ol' boy from Texas-- he doesn't seem in over his head exactly, so much as he seems like a man very capable of reaching outside of his comfort range and grab the reins when he needs to. Tommy Lee Jones is equally good as Sheriff Bell, with the lines in his face of a hard ass with experience, but as in over his head in this mess as Moss. The stand out performance here, however, is Mexican born Javier Bardem as Chigurh, who is such a natural talent it's a wonder we hadn't heard of him in English speaking roles before now. When I read the book, Chigurh came off as more a sinister killing machine; kind of like the Terminator, but with pathos. Bardem's Chigurh, however, is more like an alien, completely baffled that everyone around him doesn't think in the exact same psychopathic way he does.

And as for that ending, it's definitely something that isn't easy to swallow, even if you've already read the novel, which I had when I saw it. The climax happens "off-screen" in the novel as well-- the chapter starts with everything already over, and dialogue fills you in on what just happened, and then several more chapters go by with Bell's lamentations. I knew this is how the movie was going to end, because up to that point the movie had been very, very precise in its adaptation (in fact, this is one of the closest adaptations from one source to another I've ever seen, with I'd estimate 75% of the exact same dialogue and virtually no plot points missing). In the book you could excuse the ending by saying that McCarthy didn't want to be bothered with details-- he saw the ending as a foregone conclusion, and wanted to get immediately into his own head as the book wound down, as kind of reaction to all the deaths and violence in the pages leading up to it. The movie isn't quite the same-- it's not their ending, after all, but their translation of someone else's ending, and in sticking so closely to the way the book ended, it's almost in defiance of Hollywood convention. The Coens seem to be daring other directors to be so ballsy, to take the ugly way out if necessary, to create an endeavor as commercial as something like a movie and to still keep your dedication to the art itself completely pure. It also defies the audience itself, for more reasons than just the way we expect to have a hero ride off into the sunset with a woman's arms wrapped around him. There have been critics that have said there were more satisfying ways to end a movie that would still keep McCarthy's version mostly in tact while also not ending practically in mid-thought after a ponderous description of a dream. They're absolutely right, there are definitely more satisfying ways of doing it, but that also seems to be missing the point-- the Coens wanted to do it McCarthy's way, because it defies convention, because without it, it would be a compromised piece of artwork. The last ten minutes of No Country For Old Men is going to be debated in film school for the rest of film itself, and while arguing something's validity just because it's unique but unsatisfying might be a cop-out, praising the Coen Brothers for their steadfast integrity is not. No Country For Old Men is as good as its hyperbole; it is a masterpiece.

on this day last year do you ever talk when you're having sex? sometimes the censor in your brain that stops you from saying foolish things doesn't work.

with love from CRS @ 7:46 AM 


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