Sunday, November 11, 2007

No Country for Old Men

At its best, No Country for Old Men comes off as a sensational fast-paced actioner that happens to look terrific. At its worst, it finds the Coen Brothers wallowing in their trademark indulgences - sketching a condescending gallery of rural caricatures designed for the ironic amusement of their pseudo-sophisticate audience and betraying a cynically concocted attitude towards violence which combines hyperstylization and exactly-detailed gross-out gags to ensure a rise from the viewer, the preferred reaction being a mixture of laughter and groans present in equal measure. Still, at least until the film's final third, the Coens' brisk pacing and strong visual program swallows up any of these other concerns in a whirlwind thrill-ride, a wholly successful entry in the action genre which achieves its greatest success within the limits of the genre rather than through any attempt to transcend them.

Adapted from Cormac McCarthy's rather forgettable novel, the central action of the story consists of a chase across Texas that spills over the border into Mexico: Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles across two million dollars from a botched drug deal and is pursued for the rest of the film by the psychopathic Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). The chase device allows the Coens to eschew their usual method of characterization, allowing their lead figures to simply exist without burdening them with one or more of the irritating quirks that the filmmakers' generally assign to their characters - the Midwestern wholesomeness (and accent) of Marge Gunderson and the squeamish stupidity of Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo, the exaggerated naïveté of Norville Barnes in The Hudsucker Proxy, the condescending self-righteousness of Barton Fink. Here the Coens subsume character in action - the men of the film count in so much as they act. Surprisingly, the filmmakers succeed by hewing to the demands of the genre (at least until the film's final act) - creating suspense, handling pacing, delivering the expected payoffs - rather than using the genre framework as a springboard for their trademark pop culture musings. Chigurh may be a typical villain, defined by the pleasure he takes in his villainy, but, with his unchanging expression, his bass voice and his absurdly asymmetrical bowl-cut, he is a particularly effective one. Moss is completely ordinary, a man seized by ordinary motives (greed), involved in continual activity. The third major character, a sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones, is likewise wholly unremarkable but, in his case, the Coens attempt to add some heft to his characterization by including a few feeble conversations that fill in his backstory and which mar two of the film's three final scenes. In this film, the principals are too ordinary for the Coens to condescend to; the filmmakers refrain from providing them with those unwanted quirks that too often invite the audience to feel superior to their main characters whose idiosyncrasies mark them out as objects of ridicule. But, lest the Coens' sense of superiority find no outlet, they save the condescending impulse for a gallery of hapless supporting rubes. The exaggeratedly obese woman who works the desk at a trailer park, Moss' mother-in-law who says things like "it's unusual to see a Mexican in a suit", a dim-witted motel clerk, all are defined by their grotesque inferiorities which identify them as dispensable rural beings whose only use is as figures of amusement for the film's more sophisticated audience. They may be confined to the margins of the film this time around, but their presence is still cause for regret.

If the American cinema suffers from a general unconcern with the visual aspects of film, thankfully the Coen Brothers can not be accused of furthering this disturbing neglect. In the past, they have perhaps tended too frequently towards an overstylization which occasionally caused them to lose their feel for setting. In the current film, the filmmakers have no trouble evoking the landscapes of rural Texas and their strong visual achievement only strikes a wrong note during some of the violent discharges. The wide expanses, the garishly lit interiors, the framing of characters, all contribute to a work that is as visually assured as any American film of recent vintage. In one scene, Chigurh dips a rag in oil, sets it in a car's gas tank and lights it on fire. He slowly walks away from the car and enters a drugstore. As he goes through the doors, the Coens place him in the center foreground of the screen. In the right background, through a window, we see the car and a tiny flame coming from the gas tank, umemphatically set into the mise-en-scène. Suddenly, the car explodes and Chigurh, without breaking stride, continues walking and, the staff distracted by the explosion, goes behind the vacated counter to seize whatever drugs he needs. The scene, for all its expert staging, gains its power from the single image of the small square of flame set off against the blue of the car so matter-of-factly wedged into the screen's background. This little detail leads to the more conventional aftermath of a routine screen explosion, but it is the tiny flame rather than the ensuing conflagration that sticks in the mind. This eye for detail within a general framework of expansive exteriors and constricting interiors ensures that the film never lacks for visual interest.

But the Coens' visual inventiveness is put to more dubious use in the scenes that depict the gore-heavy aftermath of the film's frequent violent encounters. David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, another of year's most celebrated films, likewise included jolting gore-heavy violence but, if Cronenberg's film can't exactly be called a critique of violence, it at least calls upon viewers to question their attitude towards its on-screen portrayal. The Coens' sole concern with the uses of screen violence seems to be the reaction they can elicit from the viewer. As in the infamous wood-chipper sequence in Fargo, this reaction is often one of laughter, but not the sort of self-critical laughter that results from Cronenberg's absurdist presentation. This laughter is more akin to the yuks that Quentin Tarantino gets from his own violent scenes, an unreflective laughter predicated on the director's cleverness in presenting mutilated flesh. In one scene from the Coens' film, Chigurh gets in a car accident and afterwards sits to the side, writhing in agony. As two boys approach the scene, we notice a piece of bone sticking out from Chigurh's arm. But, even if we didn't notice, one of the boys is there to continually remind us, as he can only keep repeating "his bone's sticking out of his arm." The image of the bone, like the fountains of blood gurgling from Stephen Root's slit throat in an earlier scene, is a masterpiece of makeup calculated to achieve the maximum effect but, not merely horrifying as it would be in real life, it is stylized into an odd sort of beauty that only make the uses to which the filmmakers put it all the more disturbing. In a way, the boy who notices the bone is the Coens' ideal spectator. He seizes on the most sensational detail and rapt by its gory spell stands in willful ignorance of the situation's other concerns - the fact of the injured man's pain doesn't seem to bother him. The other boy, by contrast, shows a genuine concern and stands as the only figure in the film not consumed by selfish motives, but it is the first boy who mirrors our reaction to the situation, at least if we buy into the Coens' cynical shtick. But, even if we don't, even if we object to their uses of screen violence and their ironic condescension, their latest film offers enough excitement and visual pleasure to make it continually worth our while.

5 comments:

JD said...

A fan of most Coen bros. movies, I've always felt that while the accents and quirks of their characters at first may seem like condescending portrayals, the portraits they ultimately paint are sympathetic. Think of the last scene in Fargo, when Marge talks with her husband about his stamp/painting contest. He complains that so-and-so got the 29-cent stamp and he only got the 3-cent stamp; but Marge points out that the moment stamps increase in price the 29-center is worthless, and people will long need 3-cent stamps. I think this sums up how the Coens view their supposedly 'simpleton' characters; for all their quirks - which they may mine for humor - they're people of appreciable character. I may laugh at their idiosyncrasies, but I've never felt an immense sense of superiority to them.

andrew schenker said...

Even though Marge may come off as one of the Coens' warmer creations, I still feel a palpable sense of superiority towards her on the filmmakers' part. The film's ending may be an attempt to alleviate some of this condescension, but I don't think it can be so easily glossed over. Ultimately, the filmmakers' presentation of Marge comes down to the fact that she is different from the intended viewer, and these differences are presented as occasions for gentle, but nonetheless condescending, laughter. The Coens certainly don't evince the outright disdain that they show for, say, Barton Fink, but despite their efforts to show Marge's essential humanity, I find the condescending impulse present in the gap between the sophistication of the filmmakers (as well as their presumptive audience) and their characters and especially in their willingness to use this gap as an occasion for amusement. The stamp sequence may illustrate something inherently "good" in their characters, but the fact that the worldview of Norm Gunderson is limited to painting postage stamps actually furthers this sense of superiority on the part of his creators, since he comes off as one more example of the good-natured, but stupid and unsophisticated rube that seems so at odds with the Coens' orientation.

JD said...

I think you're making assumptions about the viewer's perception and filmmakers' intentions that aren't as obvious as you describe them. While the perceived sophistication gap may be mined for humor, I've always interpreted it as a challenge to the viewer's preconceived notions. In both Fargo and No Country, and many other Coen films, the more sophisticated characters, at least as suggested by their outsiderness and/or lack of accents, are invariably the basest of the criminals - think of Chigurh or Gaear Grimsrud. On the whole, this creates a world view that portrays the 'simple folk' as good and the 'worldly' folk as bad - so what conclusions is that asking the viewer to draw? I think it makes for a thought-provoking movie when one makes the killers easier to identify with than the victims...as in the scene in which Chigurh kills the gas station attendant. When you create victims that are allegedly pathetic in some way (he married into ownership of a gas station?), it almost makes it easier to think there's some justice in that person's death. But if you transcend that initial impulse, you realize it's terribly off-base. And I think the Coen brothers do invite you to transcend that initial sense of superiority, which is why I don't find the overall portrayal of their characters to be condescending.

andrew schenker said...

I'm not sure what assumptions the Coens are challenging. That we're supposed to identify with the "good" people instead of the "bad"? That the "good" characters are more sophisticated than the villains? Neither seems to be a given in the movie world and negating these assumptions hardly seems like a particularly profound insight. Either way, I don't identify with either type of character (which is fine - I don't think we're supposed to "identify" with these characters). In the gas station scene, the attendant may be an object of ridicule, but I don't feel any closer to the orientation of the more worldly Chigurh. The Coens' world view that seems to equate (at least in the two movies under discussion) simple with good and worldly with bad just creates a cynically conceived universe in which every one is either a rube or a killer. I think the point of the gas station scene is that there's no justice in the death - just a killer shooting an average person because that's what happens in the film's world, a completely amoral act in an amoral universe which has no room for notions of justice. But because the attendant is such a rube, there is certainly no emotional involvement in his death, as indeed any sort of moral weight attached to killing would undermine the Coens' project.

I also think we can make certain assumptions about the Coens' intended audience. Their clever dialogue with its wealth of allusion, their offbeat sense of humor and their heavily stylized visual conceptions, clearly these are not meant to appeal to the unwashed masses, but rather to an audience with a certain sophistication, a sophistication that the Coens are happy to flatter. That they sometimes make their unsophisticated characters exemplars of goodness doesn't mean they don't view them with a certain ironic distance. Even transcending an initial sense of superiority we may feel to say Marge Gunderson, we are only left with a simplistic (and useless) notion of moral goodness far beneath the level of sophistication of the rest of the filmmakers' conception. To me this gap in complexity between the filmmakers and the characters can't help but come off as condescending since, apart from their quirks (which mark them as inferior) there is nothing left in the "good" characters but their "goodness", a "goodness" defined in its simplest possible terms.

Cesar Fernandez D said...

"No Country for Old Men" is for the kind of film fan who remarks, "Gee, wasn't that murder a clever mise-en-scene?" and who asks, "What kind of lens do you think they used in that strangulation shot?" The skeleton of "No Country for Old Men" is a cheap, 78-minute, gun-monster-chase B movie. Javier Bardem plays Anton Chigurh, the monster. He is Frankenstein; he is Max Cady from "Cape Fear;" he is from your childhood nightmares. He may be death personified. One of many completely implausible scenes: an arresting officer, defying any logic, turns his back on Chigurh. Chigurh, displaying the supple sinuosity of a Cirque du Soleil contortionist, or an orangutan, slips out of his handcuffs. This is done out of camera view, because for Bardem it would be impossible; thus the scene's implausibility. Chigurh then, in real time, strangles the young police officer to death on camera. This is an extended sequence. This is the payoff for "No Country for Old Men": watching one human being kill other human beings, in scene after scene after scene, using various weapons, including a captive bolt pistol usually used on livestock. Guess Chigurh couldn't get hold of a Texas chainsaw. This is a slasher flick for the pretentious.consulta online medico online pediatra online medico online doctor online dermatologo online veterinario online veterinario online psychologist online consulta online abogado online abogado online abogado online abogado online abogado online psicologo online doctor online psicologo online abogado online abogado online Early on, there are well-done, if standard, chase scenes. A man outruns a car: not believable, but fun to watch. A pit bull chases this fleeing man down a whitewater river. The man reloads his gun at the very last moment (of course) and shoots the pit bull dead just as it is about to sink its teeth into the man. Later, in a hotel, a beeping transponder informs the killer where his prey hides. Your pulse may race and you may think that this is all leading up to something interesting. You will be disappointed.