The Coen brothers'
latest film, No Country for Old Men (2007), is excellently made,
in some ways terser and more economical than even the Cormac McCarthy
novel it was based on. Plenty agree this much with me, apparently
- it rolled up most of the major golden doorstops in the latest
Academy Awards nights (the one supposed to be crippled by the recent
writer's strike) including Best Picture doorstop.
got only one problem with it - I couldn't buy it for even a minute.
Mind you, that
doesn't mean I didn't like it. The Coens have developed into expert
entertainers, able to take classic genres like noir (Blood Simple,
1984), the gangster film (Miller's Crossing, 1990), comedy (Raising
Arizona (1987); The Big Lebowski (1998)), even a relatively obscure
subgenre like '40s Capraesque (The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)) and give
it their unique spin.
Their cool, flip attitude in the face of some of the horrors they
depict (a man reaching out a window has his hand pinned by an icepick,
the windowpane cracking almost as if in sympathetic response to
his pain; a woman bound and hooded runs desperately for her life
and promptly falls flat on her face) seemed refreshing during the
'80s and '90s, when the biggest hits were E.T., The Extraterrestrial
(lonely boy makes friends with a lost alien) and Forrest Gump (lonely
retard makes friends with a lost America) respectively.
If I consider
the Coens more interesting than great that's probably because underneath
all the formal brilliance I can't help but feel they're more in
love with their own cleverness than with anything they want to express
through their films (and yes, I admire them this much - that I'd
call their work "films" instead of just "movies").
Anton Chigurh, portrayed by Javier Bardem.
Until they did O Brother, Where Art Thou? at the turn of the millennium
with its warm color palette, unapologetically folk music, and overall
cheerful ending I wasn't sure they had anything more than a jaundiced,
one-sided view of humanity (I'm tempted to point out the crime drama
Fargo (1996) as earlier proof, thanks mainly to Frances McDormand's
beautifully eccentric performance as police officer Marge Gunderson
- only McDormand happens to be brother Joel's wife, and it may be
callow of me to suspect this of having some kind of effect, but
there it is).
[Not that I'm
down with every filmmaker down on people - Stanley Kubrick comes
to mind. But Kubrick brings such magisterial skill to his depiction
of humanity's flaws, and often executes his projects on so vast
a canvas there's room for contrasting hues, for a more comprehensively
complex view of the world, despite his profound pessimism (of such
contrasting (contrary?) moments I'm thinking among others of the
girl singing before the soldiers at the end of Paths of Glory (1957),
the death of Hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the final
duel in Barry Lyndon (1975)).]
So what happens
when the Coens encounter McCarthy? In the novel Anton Chigurh (Javier
Bardem), who pursues Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) for the two million
dollars Moss picked up from a failed drug bust, actually meet; in
the film they don't, and most of the picture is devoted to the strange
sight of three men (the third being Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones))
chasing each other up and down Texas without once having a face-to-face
The Coens compose some nifty effects from this sustained non-event,
one of the niftiest being Bell on a sofa, uncomfortably aware that
he's sitting on the exact spot Chigurh sat on just moments before,
seeing exactly what he's seeing (his own reflection on a dead TV
set). McCarthy in turn seems to bring out something more measured
and thoughtful than is usual from the Coens, who largely eschew
their comic pratfalls and grotesque caricatures.
The Coens pare
away most of Sheriff Bell's musings from the novel (they occur in
alternate chapters to the main action) and in one sense pare away
much of the novel's sense of mortality (the very title implies the
world's basic hostility towards grizzled old veterans like him),
adding at most sketches and indications of Bell's brooding mindset
in carefully situated monologues throughout the film (his final
monologue - where he relates a dream about his father - suggests
that any measure of comfort will only be found at the end of the
journey (of his life, in other words)).
Sheriff Bell, portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones..
Other changes are mostly minimal save two, the first being an extended
sequence involving Moss and a young hitchhiker, which in the novel
shows us a more scruffily compassionate side to Moss (the side that
took that jug of water to the dying Mexican in the desert - a silly
act, in my opinion, but who am I to judge? Without it there would
be no novel, or film), and sharpens our dismay at his ultimate fate.
The second change makes up for the first deletion, by preserving
the dignity of Moss' wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) - in the
film she alone stands up to Chigurh, in her small, rabbitty sort
Bell is the
book and film's true protagonist (which may be why the Coens felt
they could cut down Moss' hitchhiker to a brief flirtation), the
filtering consciousness through which we gain a sense of McCarthy's
fatalistic worldview, and Tommy Lee Jones plays him with a simplicity
and directness that helps undercut what can easily have been the
film's most pretentious moments.
More problematic is Bardem's Chigurh, the "badass killer" that haunts
the film's margins ("Just how dangerous is he?" "Compared to what?
The bubonic plague?" - McCarthy and the Coens feel that mere superlatives
aren't enough, they need near-biblical calamities to help place
him in context). Not that he's not fascinating - like Anthony Hopkins'
Hannibal Lecter in Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs (1991),
Bardem's brief appearances are cortisone injections that bring the
film to spasmodic life, and probably explain the picture's box office
As a figure of inevitable death, however, I find him with his captive-bolt
pistol (basically a tank full of pressurized air driving a sliding
bolt) and silenced shotgun too cool to take seriously. He's like
the James Bond - no, more like the Road Runner - of assassins, slipping
in and out of firefights, surprising fellow killers by outflanking
them, surviving car crashes that might pulverize lesser men.
I like watching
competent men on the big screen; I like to watch them make their
quiet way around, no wasted motion as they go about doing their
job. A superman has a different fascination - you revel in his powers,
in the fun and fantasy of the impossible made possible right before
your eyes. A superman asked to convince us of a concept difficult
for most of us to accept - that we all at one point or another will
face death - is a tool asked to do the wrong job. You want more
realism in your scenario, not less - otherwise the audience opts
out of the predicament by saying "it'd never happen like that!"
Llewellyn Moss, portrayed by Josh Brolin.
As Pat Graham
of The Chicago Reader points out, Michael Haneke's Funny Games (2008),
his English-language remake of his own 1997 film, does pretty much
the same thing: shows us likeable people trapped in a no-win situation.
Haneke expends less effort than the Coens in doing it - he confines
the action to a single house, gives his antagonists no extraordinary
weapons (just a golf club, a kitchen knife, a shotgun sans silencer).
His killers are not exotic assassins with faintly foreign accents,
but a pair of clean-cut youths, recognizably of the same class as
their victims - they could have just stepped out of some neighbor's
vacation home to start their predatory work (and in fact, did).
His visual style (unlike the Coens') disdains gliding shots and
clever angles, but instead settles for static camera setups that
hold us, viselike, in their grip while Haneke's scenario plays out,
step by agonizing step.
bit as artificial a situation as in McCarthy's story, but Haneke
takes the extra step of anticipating our disbelief by openly acknowledging
it, commenting on it, making fun of it with sly jokes and direct
asides to the camera. Ostensibly the Coens and McCarthy take the
loftier road, attempt to say something about mortality and our (not
very central) place in the world ; Haneke with his baby-faced thug
looking straight at us sticks pins at that pretension: it's all
about the violence, not the mortality, not the metaphysics (which
could change, anyway, with just the touch of a rewind button).
We're sitting in the theater seats (or watching the DVD) because
we want the violence visited on the film's characters. One may ask
if the punishment Haneke metes out is appropriate to our crime (of
wanting to see this picture), and Haneke even has an answer to that
(did the family ask to have their home invaded?).
Of course Haneke
says all this artfully, artfully (the vicelike camera, the carefully
neutral lighting, the total lack of a music soundtrack other than
at the film's start, and whatever incidental tunes can be heard
from the television set). Is he so to speak shooting himself in
the foot? Or is this his way of including himself in the equation,
exposing himself as yet another exploiter of onscreen violence,
only more cunning and self-conscious than others?
you hit a wall or (as with No Country) fail to take off, as you
(thanks to Anton Chigurh) had no sufficiently solid ground against
which to take off in the first place. Funny Games is perfection
of sorts, a sealed-off box from which there's no escape, other than
walking out of the theater (or pressing the STOP button on the DVD
player), but it's a sterile perfection, a squared-off dead end;
I for one am happy to see Haneke move on from this to other themes,
in films like Code Inconnu (Code Unknown, 2000), or Le Temps de
loup (Time of the Wolf, 2003). Will the Coens do the same? They've
been trying; thanks to Mr. McCarthy they do take a few steps forward.
Not quite far enough, I think.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
First published in Businessworld, 04.11.08.