Friday, July 18, 2008

No Country for Old Men: Two thumbs down

Both of them mine. If I had four thumbs, I'd give it three down.

I didn't see No Country when it was playing in the theaters and the critics were off their heads raving about it. (A quick check at the Rotten Tomatoes site shows it got a 95 percent "fresh" rating from the scribes.) I finally succumbed to curiosity and borrowed the DVD from Netflix. My home theater is pretty good, so I don't think I missed much by not seeing it on the big screen.

The Coen brothers' movies, with the partial exceptions of their first, Blood Simple, and Miller's Crossing, don't appeal to me. They represent most of what is objectionable about today's mass-market, high-budget, pseudo-independent films: lots of grisly violence; "irony" laid on with a trowel; knock-offs of that most tiresomely imitated style, film noir; and a constant striving for effects in lieu of meaning.

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Plus pretentiousness. The title gives it away: a literary reference so well known that anyone who ever took an English literature class will get it, feel clever for getting it, and assume the film must be very deep.

Not to say the Brothers Coen aren't good technicians. They know atmosphere, their shots convey mood, they are skillful at the mechanics of suspense. And No Country, unlike most of their films, is well acted. Tommy Lee Jones is about as limited
in range as any star I can think of — from perky Texas good-old-boys to (as here) tired and cynical Texas good-old-boys — but damn, he's good when the part fits him. Actors all say they hate type casting, but there's a reason for the practice: directors know perfectly well that most actors who can do Buffalo Bill can't do King Lear and vice versa; actors have their special abilities and liabilities, just like people in other professions.

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Credit where due, Jones brings to No Country a welcome dimension of humanity, and that's no small accomplishment when you're working for a pair of cool dudes who are mainly interested in generating frissons. The Real Bad Guy, whose weapon of choice is a pneumatic shooter the movie suggests is the preferred method of dispaching cattle in the slaughterhouse, is played by Javier Bardem, an actor I've never seen before. The extravagant critical praise for him is unaccountable. He's creepy enough, there's nothing wrong with the performance, but it could have been handled by any reasonably talented actor with the right physical characteristics. To compare it with Anthony Hopkins's work in The Silence of the Lambs is absurd.

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So much for the one thumb up. Otherwise, the movie is overwrought and under-thought. The Coens storyboard in terms of "big" scenes, but they're not good at filling in the spaces between, and they don't tie the high points together emotionally or in many cases even logically. Several characters are introduced — well, not really introduced, since we don't always understand who they're supposed to be — for a short-term purpose and then disposed of. For example, Woody Harrelson as some sort of criminal bounty hunter.

There's lots of blood, natch, and while technically it's integral to the plot (since there wouldn't be a plot without it), I rarely felt that it carried any weight beyond an immediate visceral shock. The world-weary dialogue and Jones's opening voice-over soliloquy are supposed to connect the gore with the decline of civilized standards and honor, and their replacement by uncaring savagery on the fringes of society. But a film that has to spell it out so blatantly, both in repetitious imagery and in canned poetry, is indicating rather than embodying its theme.

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8 comments:

teacher.paris said...

Mr. Darby,
The film certainly lost it way.
Cheers

Stephen Hopewell said...

I saw the film a few months ago and can't remember all the details, but share your general impression. Good on the technical side, nihilistic and pointlessly ironic on the philosophical side.

Was the lament over the decline of civilized standards serious or meant ironically - as the kind of simplistic solution narrow-minded bible-thumping "conservatives" make?

The faux-"redneck" society seems to be a favorite for filmmakers like the Coens who want to portray traditional white America while retaining liberal irony. It allows both sentimentalism and the portrayal of degeneracy, because viewers won't associate themselves with the "redneck" types portrayed. "Waitress" is another example.

Rick Darby said...

teacher.paris,

Are you actually a teacher in Paris?

stephen,

That is an extremely perceptive comment. It made me rethink my review.

The Coens seem like having-it-both-ways schemers: for instance, the Yeats quote of the title -- incidentally, the movie does not reflect in any way the great "Sailing to Byzantium" -- to give their movie a false highbrow note, while stuffing it with splatter-film tricks to appeal to a mass audience.

It may well be that No Country simulates an elegiac tone of mourning for vanishing old virtues of the frontier, while giving the makers' core audience of allegedly sophisticated urbanites a chance to snicker at West Texas trailer trash.

I've never heard of Waitress but it sounds like one to miss.

Stephen Hopewell said...

Rick,

Yeah, the moral lament could be real, in the same way Garrison Keillor claims Republicans have lost "traditional values" of charity, honor, etc. which he sees as liberal values. Or it could be hypocritical. Having it both ways, as you say.

The redneck setting may also be convenient, since one can then portray an all-white world without being questioned on it. It always seems inauthentic to me.

Waitress was "pretty good" in the way NCFOM was, good acting, good elements, twisted by liberal messages. Ironically, Adrienne Shelly, the director of Waitress, was murdered by an illegal alien....

rainwolf said...

The Coens certainly didn't do any justice to a fine American novel by Cormack McCarthy. "All the Pretty Horses", one of the finest American novels ever written was another example of butchery to McCarthy's work by Billy Bob Thornton. It will be interesting to see what damage the Aussie John Hillcoat has done to McCarthy's "The Road" when it's released later this year. I don't believe that any of McCarthy's work can be properly represented on film. But then again, since when did Hollywood start caring about proper representation of any kind?

teacher.paris said...

I am being paid in an Islamic currency currently. Dodging the vibrant multi-cultural crime in Paris became too much of a problem.

Rick Darby said...

rainwolf,

I've never read a Cormac McCarthy novel. Considering your high praise of them, maybe I should try one.

So much to read, so little time!

teacher.paris,

I hear there are more multi-culti criminals in Paris than Iraqis have hot dinars.

Rick Darby said...

Rainwolf (above) reminds me that No Country for Old Men was the title of the Cormac McCarthy novel that the film is based on. So I can't accuse the Coens of pretentiousness because of the title of their film. Maybe in the book it had some resonance with Yeats's poem, although that didn't come through in the movie for me.

When I implied that the Coens were being pseudo-intellectual, I probably had in mind O Brother, Where Art Thou?, set in Depression-era Mississippi but "based on" Homer's Odyssey, as well as containing a cinemaphile reference to Preston Sturges's overrated classic Sullivan's Travels. That's a highbrow sucker-bait twofer.

O Brother also had the two-faced quality that Stephen Hopewell called attention to above. If you're of a mind to, you can see it as a celebration of bluegrass music back when it was a living, noncommercial tradition. Or if you prefer, you can feel superior to all the rural Southern hayseed characters.