Saturday, February 16, 2008

A Stone Water Trough - 'No Country for Old Men'

"You can't stop what's comin'. It ain't all waitin' on you. That's vanity."

Full disclosure; I have little patience for the Coen Brothers. I'll give them full credit for Raising Arizona and Fargo as outstanding examples of frenetic and pitch-black comedy, respectively. And some call Miller's Crossing mannered and cold, but it's a perfect Hammett pastiche and I fell for its smooth adherence to the form.

I'm indifferent to both Blood Simple and Intolerable Cruelty; one takes itself too seriously and the other has a weak script that couldn't be saved by showy acting and directorial flourish. I never saw The Ladykillers and by all accounts I didn't miss much. The Man Who Isn't There is convinced that it's a witty homage to noir (lay as much Cahier du Cinema accent as possible on 'homage' and 'noir'), and just barely escapes being precious.

The Hudsucker Proxy does not escape being precious, and can't decide if it wants to poke at the corpse of Frank Capra or give it a big sloppy kiss on the mouth. O Brother Where Art Thou is beloved by folkies, classics students who get off on the Odyssey references and the three or four Preston Sturges geeks who haunt film classes and video stores. And The Big Leibowski feels like sitting next to belligerent stoner who insists that something is incredibly funny and keeps asking what the hell is wrong with you for not seeing it?

This leaves Barton Fink, which is beloved by Coen fans and frequently derided by the rest of the world. I've held onto a grudging respect for Barton, being under the impression that if you're going to go over the top, you'd might as well go all the way over the top. so I lean towards Barton being a success.

A weird, in-bred, hopelessly artsy and somewhat greasy success. The capital A & F Art Film vibe floats in every frame, but I've got to admire the sheer momentum behind the weirdness. If you're aiming to riff off of literary pretensions, Clifford Odets, William Faulkner and studio-era Wallace Beery wrestling pictures all during the rapidly disappearing days before WWII (in a hotel that may or may not be hell, incidentally) then you've gotta believe in what you're doing. Even if you can't explain it. And if you don't explain it, you waive the right to whine if the critics/audiences object.

To their credit, I don't think the Coens have never whined about being misunderstood (or if they have, I've missed it). This might be part of my problem with them. They project a deadpan cool to such a degree that it easily passes as a lack of self awareness in a dark room. Joel Coen has said "We've never considered our stuff either homage or spoof. Those are things other people call it, and it's always puzzled me that they do."

This might be the mark of an iconoclastic genius. Or maybe it's as simple as the need for somebody to pull him aside and say "Joel, watch your movies again. With somebody other than Ethan. Listen to what they have to say. And feel free to ask questions."

This is a roundabout way to explain why I approached No Country For Old Men with rather low expectations. The problem for me is that I liked it. I was genuinely impressed with it, even when looking behind curtains and into corners to see what's made it tick. I'm not alone in this, it's a quiet and sparse enough creature that it's not as easy to pigeonhole as you'd think. I've seen 'genre film' thrown around, the genre usually being identified as film noir or thriller or meditative drama or heist flick. There can be miles between these genres, so perhaps Ethan and Joel have put something slightly different together.

Whatever the beast is, it has pretty much enchanted the critics, with more than a few of them stressing term 'crafted' rather than 'artistic' which isn't necessarily a bad thing. A well crafted film is something more honest than something hollow and artsy; it's the difference between a non-descript but functioning car vs. a really well painted creature up on cinderblocks in somebody's back yard.

There have been a few outright raves along the lines of "This movie is a masterful evocation of time, place, character, moral choices, immoral certainties, human nature and fate." This particular passage is from Roger Ebert, who's writing that kind of thing these days.

But even with the generally good press, awards and Oscar nominations, there is a scattering of the indifferent. Norman Wilner didn't formally review the film in his Metro gig, but he did touch upon it in his blog, saying that:

"Joel and Ethan Coen return to meditative, textured drama with an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel about committed people doing morally murky things. It’s great filmmaking, if a little thin on the emotional side — and I don’t get what the deal is about Javier Bardem playing the Terminator in a pageboy haircut."

Point taken. He returns to this emotionally-thin idea in his review for Atonement, saying that:

"...I guess it works. But much like its fellow awards-season traveller 'No Country For Old Men,' 'Atonement' is a sumptuous literary bauble; it’s gorgeously crafted art for its own sake. You needn’t be troubled taking it home with you afterward."

This art-for-art's sake argument came up a lot in the wake of Barton Fink. But I think that Country is a far different creature. Barton wore 'expressionist' on its sleeve and explained as little as it could get away with. Country is fairly straightforward in its presentation, it doesn't have the flickery time-shifts of Pulp Fiction-era Tarantino or even your average episode of Lost. There's a narrative leap at the 2/3rds mark that is unconventional, but by no means showy.

'Showy' doesn't apply to Country, and it puts you off balance. There’s no instrumental score, no love theme, no pop songs dropped in as ironic counterpoint. Roger Deakins' cinematography is attractively dark and haunting but doesn’t draw attention to itself, unless you consider the impressive mechanics of shooting under a midnight blue sky while still being able to make out what’s onscreen.

Confrontations are set up (we’ve all seen movies, so we know what’s supposed to happen next) and then get defused quietly and logically. We lose the money shot more than once – when the doomed man doesn’t get to finish his pre-death soliloquy, we’re actually surprised. Most violence happens offscreen, we’re forced to focus on the aftermath rather than the mechanics. Country plays low and pared-down and could easily have been pumped up. You could run through a list of what other directors would have done with the material.

- Robert Rodriguez would have shown all the violence and cast Antonio Banderas in the Javier Bardem role

- Oliver Stone would have driven home some point about the futility of the war against drugs in the early days of Reagan.

- Tarantino would have told the story backwards and plundered the early 80’s top ten charts for a soundtrack.

- David Lynch would either have played up the Texas quirk a la Wild at Heart (which nobody really needs), or kept pretty much the same low-tone as the Coens if he worked in The Straight Story mode

- Michael Bay would have blown up more cars. And a hotel or two.

- Ridley Scott would have spent a lot of time on lighting.

- Terrence Malick would still be working on it.

(cartoon borrowed from johnralston)
In fact, there’s so little on screen that it’s alienated a few critics, some of whom have filled in the blanks themselves. Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post complained that the film loses its way by not following the rules:

"By narrative convention, the movie is building toward a confrontation between Moss and Chigurh. We know it, we expect it, the rules of the thriller mandate its necessity. "No Country for Old Men" then vigorously subverts the convention. It's meant to be 'ironic,' with that big capital I. Instead it's unsatisfying, with a capital U. Nobody goes to the movies for the irony. They go for the satisfaction."

Jonathan Rosenbaum was publicly unimpressed in the Chicago Reader after seeing a preview at the Toronto Film Festival:

"The picture of human nature in No Country for Old Men is by contrast so bleak I wonder if it must provide for some a reassuring explanation for our defeatism and apathy in the face of atrocity. I admire the creativity and storytelling craft of the Coen brothers, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what use they think they’re putting that creativity and craft to. As I left the screening in Toronto, all I could think was, 'America sure loves its mass murderers.'"

I thought Rosenbaum's response was fascinating, but I don't buy it. By the time he suggests that there's a nod to Abu Ghraib in one of Tommy Lee Jones' speeches, he's moved onto a generalized grumble about Americans being desensitized to violence:

"...just because the Coens are hip enough to know the contemporary audience they’re addressing doesn’t mean they have anything to say we don’t already know, about Abu Ghraib or anything else. What I suspect they’re really offering us is a convenient cop-out: we can allow dog collars to be used even while we hypocritically shake our heads at the sadness of it all."

This puts one hell of a lot of responsibility on the Coens shoulders, and I think it says more about Rosenbaum's mood at the TFF than anything else. I don't agree with his cop-out position; the most satisfying aspect of Country is that it didn't tell me what to think, didn't underscore the narrative with musical cues or well-shot violence. It even earns its occasional shaky reality- there's a brief scene where Javier Bardem carries a high powered rifle through a hotel lobby unnoticed, and it verges on the surreal. It doesn't take you out of the story, however- it's played low enough to live on this side of feasible in the terms of the film.

Jones' occasional monologues as Sheriff Bell had the potential to bring the story to a halt if played ironically or with meaningful stares into the middle distance. But Jones is a good enough actor to let these speeches fall out of him, rather than projecting them towards the Academy. By the time he does start staring into himself, he's earned it. His closing lines hit a balance between the belief that he craves and the possibility that it's all so much fantasy. The audience decides for itself; Joel and Ethan don't stack the deck or take an easy wink towards sentiment or cynicism.

There is some vague muttering about the nature of fate along the way (which can grow old really quickly), but it all is eventually diffused by a character who's smart enough (or close enough to the end of the line) to point out that fate has nothing to do with it. The person holding the gun is the controlling factor in a given situation, regardless of the easy theatricality of a coin toss.

I haven't read the novel, but by all accounts the film sticks close to its source material. You can find a version of the screenplay here at the You Know, For Kids fansite. A quick once-over brings up a few discrepancies from the finished film. Joel and Ethan the writers don't quite have the elegance of Joel and Ethan the directors, or editors at the very least. The screenplay contains a few passages that lept out at me as awkward, while the finished film was shorter and far more effective.

Ira Boudway reviewed the novel in Salon, saying that the job of turning it into a screenplay would be the easiest money a writer ever made. He also cited this passage at the end of his review:
At the end...Sheriff Bell poses a version of this question as he ponders the unknown mason of an old water trough:

'That country had not had a time of peace of any length at all that I knew of ... But this man had set down with a hammer and chisel and carved out a stone water trough to last ten thousand years. Why was that?'

Bell's answer surely echoes McCarthy's own project as a writer:

'And I have to say that the only thing I can think is that there was some sort of promise in his heart. And I dont have no intentions of carving a stone water trough. But I would like to be able to make that kind of promise.'

Here's hoping the stone trough makes the director's cut."

It probably won't, I didn't see it in the screenplay. The Coens might leak a few deleted scenes onto their DVDs, but I don't think they're under anybody's thumb to add or take away anything. If the film fails, it's on their watch.

No Country For Old Men isn't a failure by any estimation, but it isn't necessarily easy to figure out whether this is by accident or by design. Does it matter? I want it to matter. It is so well crafted that I want to know the discipline can be repeated. It lacks the usual Coen fetishes and flourishes and is a better film for it. The Coens have created a stone water trough without pointing at it while clearing their throat and winking. For that alone, attention must be paid.

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