i’ve been a coen brothers fan ever since BLOOD SIMPLE. but even i have to wonder what they’re up to in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.
i so loved MILLER’S CROSSING, with that seminal scene of john turturro begging for mercy from gabriel byrne’s character: “Look into your heart!”
but it feels like gabriel byrne’s character’s response, “What heart?”–so full of passion, cruelty, and betrayal in that film–has come to characterize the hollowness of the coen brothers’ recent work in unflattering ways.
to my mind, the coen brothers should be making the best films of their careers now. and yet. ever since FARGO, a chilly bleakness has crept into their work and made it pitiless and somewhat mechanical. i enjoyed the not-so-hidden contempt for the midwest that salted FARGO like kitty litter on an iced-over minnesota road; i could easily see how growing up jewish and “artsy” in minneapolis as the coen brothers did might leave you less than charmed by folksy scandanavian-american politeness (ne plus ultra goyishness?) that garrison keillor parodies/purveys. but even so, that contempt was barely palatable due to the warmth provided by frances mcdormand’s character, marge. and i was willing to tag along for the ongoing experiments in noir–FARGO’s blizzard/wood-chipper noir, THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE’s anorexic Billy Bob Thornton car salesman noir–so long as the cold calculations of detection could be balanced by the satisfaction of the killer identified, if not brought to justice.
in terms of writing, story, directing, pure cinematic visual sizzle–the coen brothers are at the top of their form. but i feel they’ve lost sight of what the audience is or what they might possibly need.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, based on a cormac mccarthy novel of the same name, is a variant of cactus noir that sets a detective-killer story in the arid desert of the southwest. it features a frightening Javier Bardem as sociopathic fixer Antoine Chigurgh (pronounced “sugar”), Tommy Lee Jones as the small town sheriff tracking him, and a surprisingly good Josh Brolin as the trailer park anti-hero whose tracking skills, discovery of a couple million dollars in cash from a bungled drug drop, and fateful midnight prickings of conscience get him tangled up with Chigurh.
the misanthropy is thoroughgoing and unrelenting. why Chigurh bothers to kill as many bystanders as he can on the way to collecting the missing drug money is a mystery. he may be a professional thug and hired killer, but the body count seems excessive. (the slow-burn scenes where Chigurh decides whether to spare someone or put the captive bolt pistol–used to kill cattle bloodlessly–to their foreheads are masterful and agonizing, though ultimately they feel pointless.) and wouldn’t the ones he spared be able to give a good description of what he looked like to the authorities, thus hastening his arrest?
it’s of no use to derive the usual pleasure from the white hat’s pursuit of the black hat. Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff, while not incompetent, is “overmatched” against Chigurh and he knows it. and for non-spoiler revealing reasons, Josh Brolin’s character can’t deliver satisfaction either.
what i can say is that the coen brothers violate conventions governing mainstream hollywood filmmaking left and right, but to little impact. why are we introduced to a seemingly important character with a meaningful-sounding monologue (“all else is vanity”) late in the third act? likewise, Woody Harrelson makes an appearance about midway through act two, but to what end? and what of Josh Brolin’s Llellewyn?
in filmmaking, i generally favor as much rule-breaking as one can get away with. but in this instance, do these choices help wallop us up side the head with the dark, radically unfair and devastating cruelty of life? did it buy me incredible revelations about the nature of humans, an insight into evil, or a thunderclap realization that was hidden until this point?
i’d say no. in fact, if most stories of detection have the emotional build and payoff of revelation, of the adrenaline high you get when synapses fire and connect in completely new ways revealing the hidden pattern, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN operates according to the logic of strokes. each new plot development or insight into character is subtractive. we lose a little perception with every burst of activity. if Jones’ sheriff faces a crucial moment in confronting the villain and his sheriff is defined through an act of omission instead of commission, what are we to make of the film’s ending?
i’m no pollyanna who insists that order be restored to a disordered, unjust, and sick universe. but i want to feel the full impact of your bleak view on life. and paradoxically, that bleakness needs to be delivered in an impassioned, committed, full-blooded way. if you need to intercut the final Chigurh sequence with the sheriff’s voiceover recounting of his dreams to achieve that final bitterly ironic ending, DO IT. but don’t be tentative and overly-reliant on mccarthy to do it for you, and for god’s sake, drive it home fast and hard, not slow and meandering.