Monday, November 12, 2007

Movie Chat: No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men

Here's the puzzle:

How to talk about a movie that, for its first 100 minutes is excellent, but whose last 20 minutes almost don't play at all (even though they do make perfect sense conceptually and thematically)?

Especially since, as much as I liked the movie - and I liked it quite a bit: it's alongside 28 Weeks Later, The Host, and Death Proof as my favorite movies of the year - I'm much more interested in writing about what I didn't like about it, partly because the good stuff is so good that I think it's a real shame that the movie as a whole doesn't quite deliver.

About the good stuff: though the story is nothing new - guy finds money from a drug deal gone wrong, tries to keep it for himself, gets into trouble as a consequence - the storytelling is so fully-realized, with so many "just right" details that moment-to-moment the movie is breathtaking. There are two perfectly executed suspense sequences - one involving the guy getting chased by a dog and the other involving a cat-and-mouse game in a hotel that turns into a running gunfight through the streets of a run down Texas town - and two sustained, spot-on main performances - from Tommy Lee Jones ('natch) and Josh Brolin*.

The major problem is that after the Men's Adventure Movie plot comes to an end, there are still several more scenes that serve to wrap up Cormac McCarthy's thematic concerns. The scenes are well-done, (with one exception) well-acted, and, in some ways, they feel a lot more like what we're used to from the Coen Brothers (think the "philosophical" dialogue scenes from Barton Fink, Miller's Crossing, or The Man Who Wasn't There), but compared to everything that came before, they're flat. And there's too many of them: I got the same sense I had at the end of the movie version of Return of the King - one ending would be enough, we don't need three or four. Of course, Return earns those endings (in a way) because they're meant to cap off 8+ hours of epic moviemaking. With this movie, though, they weigh everything down by making too many of the movie's themes explicit.

(It isn't often that I'll see a movie and know exactly what I would cut out, but here it's: Javier Bardem's scene with Stephen Root, Tommy Lee Jones's conversation with the El Paso sheriff played by Rodger Boyce, and Bardem's scene with Kelly MacDonald and it's aftermath - see below.)

My other problem with the movie: Javier Bardem's performance, while technically accomplished, got old pretty quickly.

Compared to the easy naturalism of Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones, Bardem is doing elaborate, cartoony schtick. It's the lead performance most like those from other Coen Brothers flicks. This wouldn't be so bad if there wasn't as much of it, because each of his dialogue scenes is making the same point - that he's a psychopathic freak on his own wavelength - in the same way - Bardem's off-kilter, spaced-out intensity.

Bardem is a little like John Turturro in The Big Lebowski, but the big differences are that (a) Jesus is only on screen for a few minutes and (b) the joke at least has a punchline.

Bardem's Chigurh is as one-note of a performance as Robert Patrick's in Terminator 2, but James Cameron is smart enough to have the T-1000 keep his mouth shut. Chigurh, like the T-1000, is supposed to be a kind of a force of nature and he seems more like a plot device - the relentless killing machine - than an actual character. Not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you realize that it's not very interesting to try to get inside the head of a plot device.

Watching Bardem, I started comparing him (unfavorably) to Tom Noonan in Manhunter: Bardem's performance is intense, but it also has big quotation marks around it - he's doing a quirky take on "Movie Psycho" - while Tom Noonan's is intense but also terrifyingly, believably alien - it's creepy and disturbing in a way that we don't usually see in thrillers. The horror comes from the total, straight-faced commitment Tom Noonan brings to that character's twisted belief system.

*After Brolin's performance here and in Planet Terror, I have to wonder if he's always been this good or it's more like after working so long in so many second rate roles in second rate productions he's finally gotten to the point where these kinds of note-perfect genre turns just come naturally to him.

9 comments:

James said...

I wish I understood more about movies and narrative, so that I could understand why the Coens' recent work leaves me so disinterested.

I loved all of their movies until about 2000. "O Brother Where Art Thou," "Man Who Wasn't There," and "Ladykillers" simply don't do it for me, and I wish I knew why.

Braccia said...

Interested to see it.

My take on movie sociopaths:

What makes Tom Noonan, Brian Cox and Ted Levine's characters scary in the Thomas Harris adaptations (but Hopkins NOT) is that the previous three characters have clearly made peace with their wants and desires. They don't really question them...but we get the sense that they once did. What makes them even scarier is that we recognize and understand the roots of these desires as utterly human...they've just been tailored to suit the personal taste of the individuals.

In Hopkins case, he flaunts and struts his idiosyncrasies, enamored with Lecter's perversities, rather than driven by them.

Too often are movie killers portrayed as machines. Writers, directors and actors often fail to recognize that it's flashes of humanity that make monsters scary...their consciousness. It's what makes Rendell's best villains terrifying and Eric Larsen's depiction of HH Holmes bone-chilling.

Other times (JAWS, T2), it's relentlessness and INHUMANITY that can terrify, but these are very specific cases. Applying the machinations of senseless violence to a human character without humanizing them...well, that's just death porn. It's the difference between a slasher pic and a horror movie.

This distinction carries to other genres: compare Sonny Steelgrave

Jon Hastings said...

James - No Country for Old Men is more like Blood Simple and Fargo than it is like any of the Coen Brothers movies from the 2000s. Though my post focuses on its negatives, I'd definitely recommend it.

To a certain extent, the Coens are always making movies for film buffs, but some of their movies - like The Man Who Wasn't There - are aimed more directly at film buffs than others - like Fargo. Their focus on "good fodder" for cinema (see the first half of David Edelstein's review of No Country for a good explanation) leads them to play all sorts of formal, structural games in all of their movies, but in some of their movies - like The Ladykillers and The Man Who Wasn't There - that's almost the whole show. I like both of those movies - The Man Who Wasn't There a bit more than The Ladykillers - but I like them for more narrow, qualified reasons than I like Fargo or The Big Lebowski and I don't think these movies have as much to offer people who aren't already into what those movies are up to: they're movies for the converted.

The structural games in Fargo - the way the actors foreground the regional dialect; the way the composition of the images emphasize a flat, bleak landscape; the screenplay's concern with the idea of silence and the limits of communication - are grounded in and work in concert with an involving Elmore Leonard-ish crime story. The structural games in Lewbowski - the references to other L.A. movies, especially L.A. private eye movies; the screenplay's concern with issues about names (i.e. the whole thing is started because there are two Jeffrey Lebowskis, the way we can tell a lot about the characters based on whether or not they call the Dude "the Dude", arguments over preferred nomenclature, etc.) - take a backseat to all the jokes and comic performances.

But The Man Who Wasn't There is all structure: it's all about the way old noir movies look and feel and the story itself seems like it's just there to prop up the formal games.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the one movie that you mentioned that I would encourage someone who does like their earlier stuff to give a second chance. (If you find their work too mannered across the board, then it probably won't play for you, either, though). Not just because I happen to like it so much, but because out of all their movies, it may be the least hermetic and the most "about" something. I also think that if it's not The Great American Movie (in the sense of the Great American Novel) it's at least a Great American Movie or the Great American Movie of the last 30 years (post-Nashville), both because of it's subject matter - the connections between politics, race, class, and folk & pop culture in America - and it's narrative style - it's a tall tale done in the idiom of 1930s/40s Hollywood movies.

Nick - I see your point. Part of what makes Noonan's performance terrifying is that I'm on the verge of sympathizing with him in those scenes with Joan Allen but that in the scene where he ties up the reporter he's so alien.

With regard to Bardem, this is one of those issues where, for me, there are a number of not-in-themselves bad choices - choices that, in fact, have worked for them before - that just happen to create a "Perfect Storm".

Character as "Inhuman", Allegorical Plot Device - not necessarily a problem. See Leonard Smalls in Raising Arizona or Sheriff Cooley in O Brother.

Goofy/Quirky Take on Psychopathy - not necessarily a problem. See John Goodman in Barton Fink.

Killers Enagaging in "Philosophical" and Thematic Conversations - not necessarily a problem. See Carl in Fargo.

Muted, Low Key Scenes Used as Contrast - not necessarily a problem. See Barton Fink.

So add all these up: a goofy psychopath, having muted philosophical conversations, but whose actions are those of a plot device and not a real character. That alone looks pretty bad, but, IMO, what's really damning is that Bardem plays and the Coens direct all of the scenes the same way (maybe when I see it again I'll be able to pick out little details and variations, but I wasn't during a first viewing). After the first close up on Bardem's face, the character offers no more surprises. That's partly why I wanted to clarify: this is very different from what Anthony Hopkins does in Silence of the Lambs. You can say what you want about Hopkins's performance, but at least it is dynamic - he's playing motivations, making different choices, and the scenes all have a different purpose (Hannibal scaring Clarice, Hannibal psycho-analyzing Clarice, Hannibal seducing Clarice, etc.). Even if you think that it is a bullshit portrayal of a psychopath (and I kind of do), at least his performance is conceived in feature-length terms: he doesn't just repeat himself scene after scene.

It's not really Bardem's fault, because what he does works and makes sense on its own terms. But in a movie where the other two lead actors are giving these believable, nuanced, dynamic performances, his stands out. (I think his best scene is the one where he's on the phone with Brolin and I'm not sure that that's a coincidence because that's the scene that's least like all of his other dialogue scenes.)

I'm not sure what would work. In practice, it's the weakest character because it's the character that is most like a movie cliche, so I can understand why they wanted Bardem to give a stylized performance, but showing less of it might have helped.

I think the idea that a slasher pic can't be a horror movie is bollocks, though.

Braccia said...

Yeah, that slasher horror stuff didn't come out right. And somehow my Sonny Steelgrave vs. 1990s Scorcese mobster stuff got deleted.

Nostack said...

Hi Jon, thanks for that long and thoughtful post! I actually like some of the formalistic stuff in the Coens' later movies, but as you say, they really don't offer much more. Sadly, I mostly go to the movies for the sake of a good story with memorable imagery, rather than the other way around.

I've seen O Brother a couple times. I concede it's very well made--perhaps extraordinarily well made--and yet that doesn't quite do it for me this time. O Brother has an element of pandering to me; it feels like the Coen Brothers on a job interview, trying to please without having a lot of substance underneath. Barton Fink is less obviously about Big Issues, but feels more personal.

The other thing I like about the Coen Brothers is that no two characters talk alike: each character's dialogue practically comes from a different film, a different type of story.

In a sense, the characters are cliches (more charitably, archetypes) defined by their idiom, and part of the fun the film is watching this post-modern mixing of characters who don't really belong in the same film together: a conversation, say, between Dignan from Bottle Rocket and Hannibal Lecter. And the characters talk past each other, not for the reason normal people talk past each other, but because they're sort of in parallel dimensions, dialogue-wise.

It sounds like this guy Bardem was doing something a bit similar, but perhaps it was too jarring or out of place...?

Jon Hastings said...

Not so much jarring and out of place, as one noted and extended past it's welcome. A lot of the times the highly stylized Coen characters have one (or two) big scene(s) and then they're out of there (Jesus in Lebowski or Shaloub in Man Who Wasn't, but Bardem has at least two too many.

I should say, all of the other fans of the movie are really jazzed on his performance...

dmoney said...

Can anyone tell me what happened during the scene when tommy lee jones character did not see the killer in the room? Only thing that has me puzzled about the film.

Anonymous said...

dmoney, i think he gets out there from the bathroom window (though i think it's locked from inside) :(

can anyone transcript what chigurh says when carla jean refuses to call?

i heard he saying something like "oh i got to hear the same they're calling there"... but it doesn't make no sense to me.

can anyone tell what it is to me?

thanks in advance!

Anonymous said...

The story is simple if you’re looking for it. It’s all in the title “No Country for Old Men”, most people problems with the story come because they think the protagonist is Moss but it’s really Ed Tom. The story is about his time as a sheriff has pasted he’s always a step to slow a bit to disgusted by the events surrounding him being a sheriff. He no longer has the motivation or drive it takes to keep up with the violent events entailed in his job. In the scene with him explaining to the deputy about the couple killing old people the deputy laughs and that look he gives is the moral of the story he is repulsed by what is going on in the world and as a result he can’t properly do his job. Just pay attention at how he always arrives a second too late, when he gets to Moss’s house with the milk still sweating. He’s too late when he arrives at the hotel to find Moss dead, and best of all when he goes back to the hotel and Chigurh is behind the door he’s close to catching him but to slow and worn down to just look behind the door. There is an ending at the end the speech is him coming to terms with his retirement and eminent death from old age.