May 22, 2008

Movies for Grown-Ups: No Country For Old Men

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

No Country For Old Men (2007)
Written by Ethan and Joel Coen, from the original novel by Cormac McCarthy
Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

Fans of the filmmakers Ethan and Joel Coen (known professionally as The Coen Brothers) know that there are actually two types of filmmaking Coen Brothers that exist -- there are the comedic brothers, lovers of slapstick and other antiquated forms of cornball humor, and there are the dramatic brothers, who love crime and blood and all the other staples of the noir genre, with both sets of brothers sharing a collective love for witty dialogue and strikingly unique cinematography. And sometimes the comedic Coen Brothers make a movie almost by themselves, at which point you get such films as Raising Arizona or O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and sometimes the dramatic Coen Brothers get a shot at making a feature, which is when you get such fare as Blood Simple and Miller's Crossing; but then sometimes the four brothers all try to make a movie together, the dramatic set and the comedic set quibbling the entire time, leading to the films of their career that no one can seemingly agree on, films like Fargo and Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski.

No Country For Old Men

For what it's worth, I've now seen seven of the twelve movies the Coen Brothers have made together, and am generally a fan of all of them; but I'll tell you, there's a very good reason that the most people ever have gone the most nuts ever over their latest, 2007 Best Picture Oscar winner No Country For Old Men, which by the way racked up another whopping 120 award nominations from the entertainment industry altogether last year, winning over 80 of them. And that's because Old Men might be the very first film ever where the comedic Coen Brothers and the dramatic ones got along perfectly, the first one where they all peacefully agreed 100 percent of the time regarding which bit goes where, thanks in no small part to an original novel by Pulitzer winner Cormac McCarthy that just accidentally happens to be perfectly Coenesque in its themes and structure; and as a result, they really have turned in here the best film of their career, one that deserves every accolade it received.

No Country For Old Men

And thank God for that, man -- because sheesh, the Coen Brothers more than deserve to be recognized for their work by now, don't you think? Starting out in the bargain-bin of independent film in the 1980s, before it was cool to be there, the duo first got famous precisely for the things in film that don't cost you anything extra: extremely inventive visual trickery and highly stylized dialogue, that is, leading to a rabid cult audience who championed the filmmakers wherever they went, leading among other things to the rise in stature of the Sundance Film Festival, and the transformation of indie cinema into something that was actually a cool choice, not a finance-driven necessity. They're the type of filmmakers who have flirted right on the edge of industry respect and mainstream success for a long time now, but whose spot there has always been troublesome -- a duo whose films are still liked the most by Harry-Knowles-style fanboys, a duo who still inspire a healthy amount of dissent from the mainstream public, filmmakers who promote violence and subversion just a little too much to ever be accepted into the corporate-friendly part of the industry.

No Country For Old Men

Now enter a creepy little dark novelist named Cormac McCarthy, who (according to Wikipedia, anyway) the Coens were actually pushed into reading by friends of theirs, and then quickly realized as their friends did that the author was a-speaking their language; and what's more, that he was doing it in Old Men with a kind of self-assured success that the Coens themselves had never been able to pull off before, the kind of self-assured success that comes from eventual Pulitzer winners and masterful storytellers (which is precisely what McCarthy is). In fact, a close read of the story taking place here in Old Men will show you just how masterful it is, and why it's resulted in the best film of the Coens' career -- and don't worry, I'm going to be very careful not to reveal any spoilers, in that you don't actually have to reveal anything important about the plot itself here to explain just why this story is so damn spectacular.

No Country For Old Men

It is ostensibly a straight-ahead noir tale, set in rural Texas in the year 1980; the story of simple-minded professional hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin, in easily the best performance so far of his career), who out in the desert one day stumbles across a drug deal gone wrong, resulting in a half-dozen cars full of dead people and a suitcase stuffed with two million cash. Seizing the moment, Moss impulsively grabs the suitcase and runs; being the shrewd, practical mountain man he is, though, he realizes quickly that the bad guys have the potential of being pretty crafty indeed, and that he better be ready to outfox whoever they are if he wants any chance of actually holding on to the money (much less his life). And indeed, the people behind the botched deal do end up realizing Moss' involvement; and they send a professional hit-man after him, the unstoppable monster and thing of nightmares known as Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, in a role that won him an Oscar last year as well). That all happens within the first twenty minutes of the film, which is why I don't mind sharing it; and I'll keep the entire rest of the actual plot a secret today, except to say in general terms that it doesn't end in nearly the way you would expect such a story to.

No Country For Old Men

And in fact, this leads us directly into what I wanted to emphasize; that this being Cormac McCarthy, Old Men of course is nowhere close to being a simple noir tale, but in fact tells a much more archetypical story at its core, almost a mythic one that takes on the elements of a fable or nightmare at points. Because really, the description of Chigurh being an unstoppable monster is not just hyperbole, but instead the entire metaphorical point McCarthy was trying to make; he is a Frankenstein, a Michael Myers, a creature of pure evil who lives by a personal moral code you and I will never begin to understand. At the same time, though, McCarthy here also examines the subject of free will versus predestination; of how much of our adult lives are the result of the deliberate choices we make during small moments of crisis, and how much is simply the result of some giant cosmic coin toss. This to me is why this story is so fascinating; because all the eventual pain, all the eventual blood, all boils back to this small private moment in the desert, one that lasts less than thirty seconds; the moment Moss decides either, "Yes, I'm going to do the ethically right thing and simply walk away from this whole trainwreck," or "No, I'm going to succumb to my weaknesses and grab this bag, and I'll figure all the rest of it out another time."

No Country For Old Men

It doesn't matter how we act the other 99 percent of our lives, the great moralists will tell us, doesn't matter at all if we attend church every week for decades or save a dozen kittens from a dozen burning buildings; it is these thirty-second moments in our lives that actually determine our ethics and character and fate, these moments when not a single other soul is around besides you and a suitcase full of blood-money. Succumb to the temptation in this moment, McCarthy seems to be saying, and you're quickly on the road to becoming a Chigurh, an unstoppable nightmare precisely because you have no morality left, precisely because you've had a psychotic break and can longer understand "right" from "wrong;" and this ultimately is what haunts the main police detective on the case as well, charming sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones, reprising his "gruff Texan Ranger" role for the umpteenth time) -- the longer his career lasts, the more he's realizing all these things just mentioned, of just what a slippery slope it is to becoming legitimately evil, and just how small of steps at the beginning will start you down that slide.

No Country For Old Men

This is the beautiful thing about this story, and why it's so fortuitous that the Coen Brothers and Cormac McCarthy should all find each other -- because these are exactly the themes the Coen Brothers have been taking on throughout their career too, always in a good and intriguing way, but let's face it, never with the strength of a legitimate master of storytelling like McCarthy. Want proof? Look at the way Chigurh resembles the "motorcycle dude" from Raising Arizona, made 18 years before McCarthy's book was even published; look at the way that free will versus predetermination plays a role in so many of their past movies. In fact, it's irony indeed that the Coen Brothers received a total of 19 industry nominations for the screenplay adaptation they wrote here, given that in interviews they've described the process as "one of us typing while the other held the book flat;" even McCarthy's longtime fans admit that this novel in particular is a very scriptlike one, and almost reads like a movie even in its original book form.

No Country For Old Men

What the Coens do here so brilliantly, then, is the same thing they do in all their other movies; find a subtle humor to the proceedings no matter what the story, bring a startling personal visual style to the production, and coax inspired performances from all their actors. So this movie, then, finally contains that final "oomph" that's been missing from the their career so far, finally shows why they've lingered on the edge of respectability for so long without ever really crossing over before now; not that there was anything wrong with them at all as actual filmmakers, simply that they were in need of an extra-brilliant script to finally cross that threshold. Now that they've finally found it, I have to admit that the result feels a whole lot like The Silence of the Lambs from back in 1991; a movie popular not only with critics but also snooty cinephiles and the mainstream public, a movie which went on to win the Oscar Trifecta (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay), a movie which created an instantly memorable villain who incidentally is insanely easy to parody, partly leading to its popularity in the first place. There seems to be almost no other choice in the matter, in fact, than to give this film a perfect 10, and to confidently state that it will eventually be known as one of those great movies of the millennial age, one of those movies that people will be renting and talking about for decades to come.

Out of 10:
Writing: 10
Acting: 10
Directing: 10
Cinematography: 10
Overall: 10

Random notes:
--For those who don't know, after the movie came out the Coen Brothers wrote a satirical article for Esquire magazine, claiming that they had thought they were hiring Josh Brolin's dad James for the main role, and that the character was originally the same age as Tommy Lee Jones' sheriff character; and that after Josh showed up to the set and revealed his young age, this forced the movie to be reset in 1980, as to make Brolin's Vietnam-vet character more believable chronologically. Those wacky guys, I'm telling you.

--On a more serious note about Brolin, however, the Coens originally weren't interested in him for the part; so he convinced his pals Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino to help him make an audition tape, using a million-dollar digital camera they were currently in possession of because of the production for Grindhouse. Apparently the only reaction the Coens had when first seeing the tape was to ask, "Who lit this?"

--For a real treat, by the way, make sure to catch the making-of feature on the DVD, and witness the humorous surprise expressed by nearly everyone when first seeing Bardem in character; turns out that not even the Coens themselves knew he was precisely going to look like that before the costume and hair were finally all put together, much less that he was going to add the quirky, nervy performance style that he did. Incidentally, with this film, Bardem became the first Spanish actor in history to win an Oscar.

--With this movie, Ethan and Joel Coen become the third and fourth person in film history to receive four Oscar nominations for a single film; the others were Orson Welles for 1941's Citizen Kane, and Warren Beatty for 1981's Reds.

--And finally, why did production on this film have to be unexpectedly shut down for a day? Why, because off in the distance, Paul Thomas Anderson had just blown up an oil rig for his fellow 2007 Oscar-nominated film There Will Be Blood, leaving a cloud of oily smoke in the air that hovered for nearly 24 hours.

Best viewed: While not thinking about pressurized cattleguns FOR GOD'S SAKE DON'T THINK OF PRESSURIZED CATTLEGUNS

Next on my queue list: A special double-feature, both concerning the highly addictive drug crystal-methamphetamine: first the sobering 2006 documentary Meth, about the gay male urban "cruising" community; then the hyperstylized 2002 fictional movie Spun, the feature-film debut of music-video veteran Jonas Ã…kerlund (Madonna, U2, Moby, The Prodigy).

Read even more about No Country For Old Men: Amazon | IMDb | Netflix | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:22 PM, May 22, 2008. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |