December 03, 2007

No Country for Old Men

Plot Summary: Average Joe stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong, finds money. Bad guys want the money. Chase Average Joe.
First off, the Coens know dialogue.

When you think of their body of work, it's hard not to think of the colorful language of The Hudsucker Proxy, Raisning Arizona, Fargo, Oh Brother..., and The Big Lebowski. I usually have to turn on the subtitles to catch all the whip-smart exchange that rushes by so quickly.

In their latest film, No Country for Old Men, they've taken their quirky dialogue and cut to the quick. The film can't have more than 300 lines in it. Which is not very many. And yet, every line is gold. Even in the midst of bleak and dark moments--and there are more than a few--I found myself chuckling. It's not that the lines are funny, but the characters are so well-drawn that they can invent idioms and cliches on the spot, and you not only understand them and buy their meaning, but you love them.

There is a scene between the bad guy and a gas station attendant which might be my favorite four minutes of film this year.

The Coens know action.

This might have been the big surprise for me. There are some serious action/thriller sequences here that had me leaning forward in my seat. It would be a mistake to call the film an action film, especially with its ending, but suspense and surprises are not beyond their grasp.

The Coens know photography.

You're never sure how much of the cinematography is the result of the DP and how much is the director(s), but this film is jam-packed with moments that have simple power. They forego the usual compositions and sequences associated with chase scenes or hiding scenes or killing scenes, and they focus our attention on something slightly removed from the action. When the bad guy is about to look behind a motel room vent to find the case full of money (where we all know it's been hidden) he reaches in his pocket to find a dime to use as a screwdriver. The camera takes a close shot of his hand as half a dozen coins slide across his palm. As each coin is revealed we are all praying there won't be a dime, but the last coin to slide out from under the others is shiny and small and silver. It's a detail, but that's what the Coens are all aout. They find the details in the scene that convey the importance of what's happening and they put our eyes there.

The Coens know narrative sturcture [SPOILER] and they want to destroy it.

The Coens are all ABOUT destroying narrative. In this film, they tackle the master narratives of romanticism, religion, justice, and materialism, revealing each as inadequate to deal with the randomness of the universe. In fact, one could even argue that both the good guy (Tommy Lee Jones') character and the bad guy try to make sense of the world through completely opposing paradigms, and neither is particularly successful.

One of the final scenes demonstrates that they don't even want you to be satisfied with their film's narrative. When it looks like the bad guy is gonna get away scott free, he is driving along and gets in a horrible accident. For a moment we believe this is his come-uppance. He'll get what he deserves or get caught or lose the money. Something. But no; he crawls out of the car, tears off his bloodied shirt, buys a clean one of the back of an onlooking teenager and limps away.

It's a tease really. Just when we think there's going to be some sort of structure that we recognize, it fizzles and we're left with the same unsatsified feeling.

The film is unsatisfying by design. Which will piss a lot of people off, I'm sure. And only the Coen brothers can get away with this (well, them and David Lynch). It's hard not to read the film as anything but Nihilistic. And while I can't buy into their world view, it's certainly fascinating to view the worlds they create.

1 comment:

Jared Pike said...

I saw No Country For Old Men over Thanksgiving with family members. Being the only cineaste in my family (and a big Coens fan at that), it was a little awkward trying to explain how I loved the movie, when everyone in the theater kept saying "that was weird" or "that was stupid."

One note: it is extremely violent. If you can't stomach multiple gunshots to the head, I'd suggest something less violent: say, Hitman, or American Gangster.

One last note: I did have a dream last night that Anton Shgur was chasing me. You all probably have had similar nightmares.