Sunday, November 25, 2007

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. For about two-thirds of the movie, I was completely on board with all the critical acclaim. It manages to preserve tension despite a glacially slow pace; dread slips under the viewer's skin, and even the occasional laugh (a Coen trademark in such situations) exacerbates rather than relieves it. Every set piece -- the bright-lights pursuit of Moss in the desert, the coin-toss in the gas station, and especially Moss' first confrontation with Chighur -- is up there with Hitchcock's. Even the gnomic utterances of Sheriff Bell seem to but gently slacken the strings in preparation for further tightening. I thought the Coens had outdone themselves.

[warning: spoilers]

But the last third is a disaster. Instead of paying off the tension, the Coens opted to pay off the bullshit moral commentary. Not only do they let Bell ramble on, they undercut the narrative drive, and when those strings are let loose everything falls apart. They kill two major characters offscreen; Bell's showdown at the motel is impossible to follow; even Deputy Wendell, a brilliant minor character in the first part, becomes tic-ridden and dramatically incoherent. The more people drawl about good 'n' evil 'n' right 'n' wrong, the sloppier and less convincing the film becomes. I haven't read the book, but it looks like the Coens tried to cram a bunch of philosophical literary stuff into the final passage, as if the painful, protracted hunt were not itself the best carrier of the grim vision. Chighur's escape (I told you there would be spoilers!) is typical. The car crash is dramatically sound -- live by the coin toss, die by it too, an unexpected but just resolution. To have him stumble off into the suburbs as the Undying Embodiment of Evil is unsatisfying even if you're not looking for a Hollywood ending: to avoid resolution is not the same thing as removing its necessity.

I can't not recommend it. It's got too much good stuff in it. All the craftwork is first-rate. The Coens ought to write cinematographer Roger Deakins into their wills: every shade from the corpse-blistering sun to the shot-shattered night is exquisitely rendered. And the acting is downright noble. Josh Brolin is quietly amazing, a good-enough man in a bad place, pursuing his mission to the full extent of his capabilities and the bitter end, never accepting the full cost of his foolhardy gamble. Sheriff Tommy Lee Jones and Deputy Garret Dillahut are Texas true 'til the Coens cut them off at the knees. Woody Harrelson and Stephen Root keep the second story alive despite all difficulties; Kelly Macdonald finds the dignity in a dishrag character.

And if Javier Bardem had not made his monster Karloff-scale believable we wouldn't even be having this conversation. This is the greatest kind of acting -- the kind that suggests its own backstory. I can see him as a hollow-eyed, beaten boy, silently absorbing evil and taking all his lessons from it, growing into a creature that cannot be stopped or swayed, but still must have his little games to prove, in the face of uncomprehending fear (his or theirs?), that he has been right all along. Bardem's performance is eternal in a movie that could have been.

UPDATE. Glenn Kenny of Premiere has a very good demurrer. I encourage any interested party to read it all, but herewith the money shot:
The first is the emphasis on the idea of Chigurh as an actual supernatural figure. By the time the killer, so fantastically incarnated by Javier Bardem, strides into the office of Stephen Root—whose character is merely billed as “Man Who Hires Wells”—with that enormous gun at his side, even a filmgoer who’s not one of “The Plausibles” (as Hitchcock derisiviely referred to plot nitpickers) might well ask “How did he get past reception?” But the ugly galvanic action kicks in before the question can finish, and then there’s the exchange with the fellow from Accounting, who finally asks, “Are you going to shoot me?” To which Chigurh replies, “That depends. Do you see me?”

A little later, after the motel massacre, discussing Chigurh with “local law enforcement,” Bell muses, “Sometimes I think he’s just pretty much a ghost.” In the book, Bell summons local law when he thinks he’s got Chigurh locked down at the motel...which he figures by watching the cars in the lot. The film places him in much closer physical proximity to Chigurh, to much more mysterious effect.

Bell goes back to the motel, through the crime-scene tape; he looks at the door and sees the blown-out lock. In a subsequent shot, we see Chigurh himself inside the room; the hole in the door is the only source of light, and Chigurh’s gazing at it, expectantly. We still can’t place him in the room...
You get it. The movie has swung around to where it began, as Sheriff Ed's story, for which the plot is just the major piece of information, not necessarily real, that motivates his abdication. Chigurh is a symbol, the embodiment of all the stuff Ed can't figure, which finally turns him away from crime-fighting.

In answer I would cite two films. Arthur Penn's Alice's Restaurant has a literally dizzying ending: the camera turns completely around Alice, fixing her in a time and place, removing her from everything that's gone before. But the whole movie has been about dislocation: Arlo's, the communards', everybody's. The ending is extraordinary but expected. Though it hits you hard emotionally when it happens, you sort of knew all along it was coming to something like this.

And there's the shift at the end of If.... I recall (though I can't find the source) that Harold Pinter objected to the moment when Mr. Kemp is withdrawn from a bureau drawer to shake hands with the rebels. Pinter or no, it's a palpable shock to audiences with whom I have shared it, and thereafter the film decisively changes tone: there's no more patty-fingers, no more public-school metaphor, only bloody insurrection.

I am always very careful about saying that anything that is not easy to explain in a work of art is false. But this is, after all, a movie we're talking about, and one in which the full power of traditional narrative cinema has been employed by very sophisticated filmmakers to make the Moss-Chighur battle as vivid and visceral as it can possibly be. If you want to turn it around and say that it's effectively all in somebody's head, you have to answer for the painstaking verisimilitude that came before. Frankly, despite all the signifiers Kenny has turned up (I am especially impressed by his reading of the motel conversation, particularly in view of its weird blackout ending), I don't see it. And without making extravagant claims for my own perception, I think that the Coens had the means to bring me up to speed if that was their intention. Sometimes a work of art fails not because it is difficult, but because it is a failure.

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