Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Understanding Auteurs: The Coen Brothers (No Country for Old Men)

Having spent the mid-aughts looking like shells of their former selves, the Coen Brothers come roaring back to life with the wild thriller No Country for Old Men (2007).  Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and The Ladykillers (2004) were the worst kind of failures, in the sense that they not only represented the nadir of the Coens’ career to date, but also laid bare flaws that had been present in their work all along.  It was difficult to believe that the duo would get back on their feet artistically after being on auto-pilot for two features (and two amusing-but-slight shorts).  But rather than going the way of Tim Burton, sprinkling watered-down elements of their aesthetic on half-baked, impersonal scripts, the Coens wound up making their best film up to this point.

The Coen Brothers’ strategy for refocusing themselves seems to have involved going back to the style of their simple and straightforward debut film, Blood Simple (1984).  This means a streamlined narrative involving several characters complicating each other’s modest goals, a more downbeat tone than usual for the filmmakers, and a sense of humor so dry and restrained that it is practically subliminal.  No Country for Old Men also opens with what seems to be a self-conscious nod to the beginning of Blood Simple, as an offscreen Tommy Lee Jones delivers a monologue over lovely landscape shots, just as M. Emmet Walsh did in the earlier film. 

Yet No Country’s similarities to Blood Simple serve less as examples of a return to form than as evidence of how far the Coens have come as filmmakers in twenty-two years.  Where Blood Simple found largely wooden actors embodying stock noir characters, No Country features an excellent cast who go beyond the call of duty in bringing their (still somewhat generic) characters to life.  The Coens were fully competent on a technical level even at the time of their debut, but No Country finds them making masterful use of their aesthetic whereas in Blood Simple they were mostly just showing off.  While Blood Simple has one great setpiece involving the attempted burial of a not-quite-dead body, No Country has several brutally vivid action sequences that are well-paced throughout the film’s two hours, including a memorable chase scene that climaxes with Josh Brolin’s character drying out his wet pistol just in time to shoot a vicious hunting dog.

The technical mastery on display throughout No Country for Old Men reaches its apex at the film’s halfway point, in a tense shootout between Brolin’s Vietnam vet cowboy and Javier Bardem’s psychotic killer.  Earlier in the film, Brolin had stumbled upon the bloody aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong and retrieved a briefcase containing two million dollars from the wreckage.  Bardem is one of several people trying to get his hands on the stolen cash, and at this point in the film, he has already been established as an unstoppable, unrepentant murderer.  Bardem has tracked Brolin to a hotel near the border of the United States and Mexico, a fact that Brolin only realizes in time to hear Bardem shooting the hotel clerk in the downstairs lobby.  As Brolin waits in his hotel room with the lights out and his shotgun pointed toward the door, the intensity builds with a primal force reminiscent of the best of silent cinema.  However, the Coens are not just using cinematographer Roger Deakins’ powerfully shaded images and the timing of their own edits to evoke tension, but are also making brilliant use of both onscreen and offscreen sound, contrasting Brolin’s nervous breaths with the floorboards creaking under Bardem’s approaching feet.  After Brolin and Bardem inevitably start shooting at each other, the action leaks out into the street, with Brolin doing the Gabriel Byrne-in-Miller’s Crossing (1990) exit of jumping out of his room’s window and running back into the hotel lobby (the camera amazingly tracking behind him the entire way).  The Coens find inventive ways to keep the intensity building throughout the duration of the shootout, with the combination of the acting, editing, camerawork, and sound adding up to not just the finest scene in their filmography to this point, but one of the greatest action sequences in all of cinema.

As great as No Country for Old Men is when it sticks to being an action film, it runs into some problems when it tries to be more.  In my post about Blood Simple I said that No Country’s “allusions to the two Iraq wars and its vague ramblings about the nature of evil are putting up an illusion of depth that the film can’t support,” and though that statement was based on fuzzy memories of a movie I hadn’t seen for several years, it is as true now as it was then.  Part of the problem is that the main characters, despite being memorably brought to life by the Coens’ finest ensemble cast since The Big Lebowski (1998), are somewhat sketchy.  Bardem’s character is particularly problematic, as he seems to change motivations and methodologies based on the needs of individual scenes.  In some scenes, Bardem is a silent force of nature, while in others he is almost like the villain of a slasher movie, making little quips as he disposes of his victims or flipping his lucky quarter like Two-Face.  Woody Harrelson (another character following the money) makes some reference to Bardem having some sort of twisted moral code, although there is no evidence of this in the film itself.  It’s as if the Coens (or Cormac McCarthy, whose novel the film is based on) wanted to turn Bardem into the ultimate heavy by combining all of the clich├ęd attributes of past screen villains.  That the character manages to function at all is entirely a testament to Bardem’s frighteningly committed performance.

The screenplay’s pretensions to deep meaning cause some structural problems, which are most apparent when looking at Tommy Lee Jones’ small-town sheriff.  Brolin functions as the protagonist for most of the film, but when he is abruptly murdered offscreen, the focus suddenly and awkwardly shifts to Jones, who had previously only appeared in a handful of scenes.  The Coens handle this flashy plot twist with their customary flair, and they are strong enough stylists to make the film’s narrative feel smooth even as it is being thrown out of whack, but the fact that Jones doesn’t become the film’s hero until the last half-hour of the film prevents the viewer from having the emotional investment required for his more dramatic, slower-paced portion of the film.  (The gradual introduction of the film’s ultimate protagonist is similar in some respects to the development of Frances McDormand’s character in Fargo [1996], where it was better handled). 

Jones is presented as the film’s moral conscious, a man whose old-fashioned small-town values make him ill-equipped for the depravity of thugs like Bardem.  But Jones’ inability to fathom the horrifying things he reads in the newspaper (including a story about torturers using dog collars, in the film’s most obvious allegory for the war in Iraq) isn’t a particularly edifying or useful form of morality.  Of course there is some component of mass murder that we’ll never be able to fully understand, but placing all of the blame for that slaughter on that one quality – and thereby ignoring the social and political aspects that help produce serial killers and start wars – is simply not helpful.  Reducing everything to the childish concepts of “good” and “evil” makes the world harder to understand, but because it is easier to brand something as evil rather than try to come to grips with its reality, those concepts remain popular.  The use of “good” and “evil” in No Country for Old Men would be less problematic if the film was being consistently told through Jones’ point of view, but because he only becomes a major figure toward the end, his unhelpful statements about the modern world’s inexplicable rules come off as the “moral of the story.”  And the moral is ultimately too banal to justify the film’s pointedly anticlimactic ending, in which Jones relates a despairing dream to his wife.

Though it overreaches in some respects, No Country for Old Men is still one of the most gripping and well-made action films of the last decade.  Though some of the characters are problematic, the performances are uniformly excellent; even supporting players like Kelly Macdonald, Garret Dillahunt, and Stephen Root make a vivid impression.  The Coens have never seemed more focused or more in control of their own aesthetic.  Their decision not to include any background music is brilliant, because it makes the film’s rural atmosphere more sensuous and palpable than it otherwise would be while also upping the tension of the action scenes by forcing the viewer to focus on the tiny sounds that turn the tides of the battles.  Even if No Country for Old Men isn’t a masterpiece, it is still better than anything the Coens had done before, and an indication that they are fully growing into their lofty reputation.

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