Monday, November 19, 2007

No Movie for Sissies

The 1990 movie Miller's Crossing was something of an awakening for me. It was the first movie which made me pay attention to visual things in a film instead of just the story, which in turn opened the door a crack to give me a glimpse into the totality of movie making. The Coen brothers' subsequent movies all made an impression on me, and they have become my hands-down favorite directorial team. In addition to Miller's Crossing, I would list Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski as among my favorite films, and I really love and admire Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou? and The Man Who Wasn't There as well. (I thought The Hudsucker Proxy was fabulous to look at, but it's not otherwise one of my faves.)

After a couple recent films where they seemed off their mark a bit--Intolerable Cruelty and their remake of The Ladykillers--I was excited and apprehensive about their new film, No Country for Old Men. Would this be a return to form, or had the Pandora's box of mainstream entertainment been opened, never to close again?

Well, all is indeed well in the film world. The new film is quietly spectacular. Fucking brilliant, even. Anton Chigurh, played by the Spaniard Javier Bardem (with a pudding-bowl haircut) is a hired mass murderer sent to clean up after a drug deal goes bad in the Texas desert. Some $2 million has vanished, and that's a situation which needs to be rectified. The money comes into the possession of trailer-park denizen Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin), who--in a deft bit of foreshadowing--is out tracking an animal he shot but did not kill, and stumbles upon the carnage. This setup is pregnant with possibilities, and the Coens play them out with a calm and arrow-straight assurance, marching forward with the certainty of the grim reaper, unhurried but inevitable. The Hitchcock-like cat and mouse game between the hunter and the hunted is followed a couple steps behind by the county sheriff, played with weary fatalism by Tommy Lee Jones.

We expect to meet a motley crew of characters in a Coen Brothers movie, and this film doesn't throw out that rule book, exactly. But no one, not even Chigurh himself, is nearly so over-the-top as past experience would lead us to expect, though his... methods are unorthodox. Moss and the sheriff and Moss's wife, perfectly played by Scot Kelly Macdonald (whose fairly thick brogue magically vanishes here) are all subtly understated and believable characters, and they're given enough of the right stuff to make them real to us. This is an accomplishment with an actor like Tommy Lee Jones, whom we can't but expect to do his Fugitive lawman schtick. There's a little of that here, but the stoicism with which he approaches the character is a pleasant surprise.

And that's the whole movie in a nutshell, really. The Coens are notorious for black comedy, for fairly serious events which are tossed off with idiosyncratic whimsy. This movie sticks much closer to the standard drama genre, giving us relatively little in the way of levity. It's not quite the squirmy suspense of The Silence of the Lambs, but there's little in the way of comedy relief when the shit is hitting the fan. Like the quiet characterizations, this seems something new for them.

The movie's pacing is also a little unexpected. There's a faint incongruity between the quietude of most of the performances and much of the story's unfolding, and the unceasing brutality of the broad strokes of the story itself. How much of this is a reflection of the Cormac McCarthy novel from which the movie is adapted I do not know. But there's a lot of silence for a movie with a body count. Whatever, it makes for a great combination: I did not look at my watch once, but neither did I leave the theater buzzing from over-stimulation. (This reminds me: I'm not really aware of any music anywhere in the film, until halfway thru the closing credits.)

The Coens again hired cinematographer Roger Deakins, who gives us the empty and arid landscapes of the poor Southwest with minimal fiddling (as opposed to O Brother where there was hardly a natural shot in the movie). It's a grim story told in a grim setting by tired, worn people. Deakins captures this perfectly.

This is storytelling at its best, confidently told by artists at the top of their game. I'll need to see it again to solidify my opinion, but from this exposure I expect this film will rise to, or near, the top of my list.

Grade: A


dbackdad said...

I love the Coens and am very glad to hear that you liked the new movie. I plan on seeing it this weekend.

having my cake said...

I saw and very much enjoyed Fargo, O Brother and Hudsucker. The last I think I would have enjoyed more if I hadnt watched it very shortly after Shawshank Redemption and so struggled a bit with the Tim Robbins character cos I kept getting confused between the films. Everyone raves about Miller's Crossing so I guess Id better get myself a copy :)

wunelle said...

It stretches credibility to say that Miller's Crossing is the best movie ever made, but it is my favorite. The quirky must-pay-attention storyline, the odd and memorable characters, the utter beauty of Barry Sonnenfeld's camerawork; I can watch it profitably again and again.

I think that's what I like about all their movies--the layers of detail, and the care and attention paid in their craft.

Dzesika said...

Hey, thanks for the review - we at the office are clamoring to see the film ... if it ever comes to these hick parts of town!!