the better truth

the better truth

Sunday, December 02, 2007

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Beep, Beep

Imagine you’re invited to a gourmet’s Thanksgiving Dinner. This person can cook. You’ve previously experienced their meals. It’s maybe not to your liking at times but there’s no doubt this person is a foodie. They know their stuff. The spread is laid and you’ve sampled some sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce – so far so good. The cook comes out with the central attraction and starts carving. You can’t wait. Instead of serving up the bird the chef delivers a soliloquy about how Thanksgiving has changed. People don’t cook the way they used to… the holiday is too commercial… they’ve forgotten the meaning… You know the speech. You patiently wait through all the talk in anticipation of the feast. The cook/host abruptly ends the heartfelt blabber and takes the bird back into the kitchen… never to return. This is how I felt watching the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men”.

Cormac McCarthy chronicles the Southwest in the same spare sympathetic yet unsentimental way Springsteen paints New Jersey. The desolate landscape is peopled with beaten souls who have heart. “All the Pretty Horses”, part one of the border trilogy, purposely disposed of apostrophes as if quotes someone seemed pretentious in a book about broke cowboys and broken horses. It was a very exciting prospect: the sparse “down and dirty” writing combining with the smart craftsmanship of Joel and Ethan. I was looking forward to this as I’d heard that the brothers were returning to the roots of their debut film.

I remember the buzz about “Blood Simple”. The boys made a big splash with a very tightly crafted slick film noir thriller. There was enough dazzle to show Hollywood they could play ball balanced with a smartness that kept the black-clad urban sophisticates inline. I remember hearing “They went to Princeton”. Half true – one of them did. But the real issue is that they did their homework. “Barton Fink” was a meditation on what sparks a writer’s ideas (or doesn’t). It was well crafted with all aspects of the production fueling the angst of creation. The choice of the Hollywood screenwriter was balanced with references to real events… It was clever, popular, well received and I couldn’t stand it. I thought it was a bore. BUT I’d never say it wasn’t well done. Hats off to any director who is able to tame the mainstream movie making behemoth to bow to his wishes. These brothers have kept it up for decades and have a body of work that stands up.

Ironically “Blood Simple” was, after all these years, my favorite. For me that film highlighted the brothers’ ability riff on the motion of filmmaking. Little moments. Beads of sweat telling stories. A flash of stark headlights illuminating what might take a pulp writer ten pages to describe. Coen brothers’ have the ability to dance as well. Think of “Raising Arizona” or the “Hudsucker Proxy” – the frenetic movement gliding through scenes… “No Country for Old Men” had an auspicious start born of pure simplicity: who has the goods? It might be hard to build an interesting novel on such a simple idea. Novels have a need for endless subplots and ruminations – even Cormac McCarthy’s. Films can meditate and ferment on even the most threadbare storylines. When this film focused on the simple chase it worked. The brothers’ should have remembered the lesson from another dramatic figure who roamed the Southwest: “Roadrunner”- he was never allowed to leave the road. If he could roam anywhere – how could Wile E. Coyote lay traps? In this case the roadrunner starts drifting and Wile E. Coyote starts talking. The novel’s dramatic anchor was most likely the Tommy Lee Jones’ character. The crux of his struggle was his perceived loss of the utopian world. The film is chalk full of Tommy reminiscing about the good ole days. Maybe the radical historian Howard Zinn should have stepped and explained that the reason those old guys never carried any guns: their father’s had already done the dirty work – there were no more Mexicans and Indians left to kill. Or maybe an anthropologist could have stepped in and discussed the destruction of the Anasazi people and the controversy over suspected cannibalism in the centuries before the European. No Tommy it wasn’t all that pretty way back when, but more to the point – who cares?

You don’t go to see a Coen brothers’ film for enlightenment – its about entertainment. Where was the humor of “The Big Lebowski” or “Fargo”? There were brief moments when Tommy and his dummy deputy almost had something going – but I guess Tommy figured “this is serious business”. It’s too bad. What about Woody? Not that one – Woody Harrelson. He looks promising as a super cool bad boy – but he makes an early-unexpected exit – sort of inline with the rest of the film’s dramatic movement. The directors’ exhibit the uneasiness of treating McCarthy’s book as merely an action film by showing the aftermath of great battles. Even one of the central protagonist’s demise is treated as a after-thought. We view the deed already done as if to say – this movie is about more important things. Well, the book might have been. The film begged for less talk and more suitcase shuffling or pitched pick-up battles. Someone should have told Tommy Lee that he wasn’t the center of the pizza. That honor goes to Javier Bardem. If there is any definitive winner in this project it is former Rugby player/journeyman actor from Spain. This is a mainstream breakthrough role that will get him out of the art-houses and into the multiplexes. Bardem limits the philosophy to a coin toss and a glare from his Picasso eyes. It’s all you need. He’s funny-terrifying and speaks to the Coen brothers weird melding of the off-beat and mainstream. He’s could be in a Scorsese film or Friday 13. If only the Coen brothers could have understood that the book should have been a springboard for a chase movie. It’s not as glamorous as being deep but filmically, their ain’t no water in the desert.

What’s wrong with simplicity? Remember Blood SIMPLE. No one is ever tired of watching Road Runner. Keep it on the road. Who has the money? Who gonna get it? Keep them guessing. Keep them on the road. People come to a Coen brothers film for ride, a smile and maybe a gasp. Leave the brooding at Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point” or Wim Wender’s “Paris Texas”. It’s like Thanksgiving. They may have served eagles and eels at the original meal – but that’s for historians. People want the turkey – trust me.

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