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.
I've really 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"). 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 encounter. 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)). 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 of way.
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 boxoffice appeal. 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!"
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.
It's every 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?
Eventually you hit a wall or (as with No Country) fail to take off, because the premise (thanks to Anton Chigurh) failed to find sufficiently solid ground against which to purchase traction. 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-away 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.
First published in Businessworld, 4/11/08