Wednesday, November 14, 2007

No Country For Old Men

Almost all fans of Ethan and Joel Coen believe that the fraternal writer-director team has been in a 21st-century slump. But I'm the rare fan who believes the slump showed signs of starting before the change of the millennium. The Big Lebowski (1998) is already a cult classic, adored equally by Coen-heads and potheads who couldn't match a director's name to a movie for a super-size bag of Cheetos. I laughed, but mostly thought it was pretty boring for such a "zany" movie. Likewise, Fargo (1996), which is probably the consensus pick for the pair's best effort, is beautifully made and I've seen it more than once, but it's not my favorite. That would be Raising Arizona, the giddy, dreamlike comedy about mismatched newlyweds stealing one of a wealthy couple's quintuplets.

Arizona was released twenty years ago, and the Coens have done a lot of great work since then, but nothing else that succeeded quite so perfectly on its own terms. Until now. In addition to all my natural interest in it, my appetite for No Country really spiked when I read this line in A.O. Scott's New York Times review:
For formalists — those moviegoers sent into raptures by tight editing, nimble camera work and faultless sound design — it's pure heaven.
He couldn't be more directly addressing me if he had written, "You'll like this movie if you're pale and twitchy."

Of course, just about every Coen movie is a delight on the formalist level, but this one might be their best. It's like a piece of Shaker furniture -- well, a piece of Shaker furniture covered in blood. The story, quickly, is that a hard-nosed Texan finds two million in cash among many dead bodies at the scene of a drug deal gone bad. He's then pursued by a sociopathic killer who's charged with getting the money back. All the while, a sheriff is (hesitantly) on the case. A lot of what other critics are saying is right: As the sheriff, Tommy Lee Jones is fantastic. As the sociopath, Javier Bardem is chilling. As the guy who learns the very hard way that "finders keepers" is an oversimplification, Josh Brolin is perfectly cast. (Don't back up; you read that right.)

Something you may not know: Brolin's wife is played by Kelly Macdonald. Her presence in the movie means that it could've been directed by Carrot Top and had all the formalist appeal of a local car-dealer commercial and I would've bought a ticket.

What struck me was what a great companion piece the movie is to Raising Arizona. In fact, whenever the DVD comes out, I'll probably host a back-to-back viewing for friends. Both films are set in a mythical West (No Country is adapted from a Cormac McCarthy novel, and if McCarthy had a taste for the absurd instead of the gothic, he might have written something a lot like Raising Arizona by now). Both stories are set in motion by a desperate man taking something that doesn't belong to him. Both feature bounty hunters then pursuing that man, and that pursuit is represented in both films by ominous shots of dark highway spooling underneath a moving vehicle. Both feature extended conversations between a criminal and the cashier of a remotely located convenience store, one played for laughs and one for tension. Raising Arizona's H.I. McDunnough comes from "a long line of frontiersmen and outdoor types;" No Country's sheriff comes from several generations of lawmen. There's more, but I'll save it for the lecture I give before the double screening, which no one in their right mind will attend after reading this.

All of this says nothing about No Country's subtle themes, its propulsion in spite of some deeply unconventional narrative decisions, its lack of a single unattractive frame, and -- despite what I'm sure some people are saying -- one of the best endings in ages. You can get all those things by seeing the movie, though, and you should.


Anonymous Josh said...

and both Moss and H.I. attempt to commandeer a pickup truck driven by a hapless yocal - except in No Country, the driver didn't have a chance to say something like 'boy you have a panty on your head'

10:33 AM  

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