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Saturday, March 28

It was all leading up to this: 'No Country For Old Men'

No Country For Old Men (2007, Joel and Ethan Coen) is a brilliant film with one of those maddening non-endings that can go either way with me: when John Sayles abruptly cut to black in Limbo (1999) it took my breath away, but the final scene of No Country felt unsatisfying. Perhaps I just didn't "get it". No matter - I love the film to bits, it's not like the ending ruined it for me. What I adored so much about the film was that, for the first time in what seemed liked forever, I was sitting in the theatre excitedly wondering "what happens next?" - happily twisted around the Coens' little fingers. After years of "plot developments" eliciting bored moans it was delightful to feel like I was really being told a story. The other thing I loved about the film was that it seemed the perfect distillation of everything that was once great about the Coen brothers before they really went Hollywood and started making films like Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and The Ladykillers (2004). Truth be told, I think the rot was setting in before these sell-out low points - I enjoy The Big Lebowski (1998) enough but certainly not as much as its fans do, and found the highly acclaimed The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) to be an empty experience.

No for me, the Coens are all about their first six films, each one perfect in its own way: Blood Simple (1984), Raising Arizona (1987), Miller's Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), and Fargo (1996). I know I am a rare Coens fan who will put Hudsucker on the good list over Lebowski, but so be it. I've just always really dug The Hudsucker Proxy.

And so No Country For Old Men really felt like a return to form for me. It was like they'd made a new Blood Simple, only this time with the best technical team given enough money and a dream cast. Like Blood Simple, No Country For Old Men is a twisty thriller set in the wastelands of Texas, and the films have almost identical openings, with a world weary voice over (M. Emmet Walsh in Blood Simple, Tommy Lee Jones in No Country) speaking over desolate shots of Texan plains. The critical difference - one which is not immediately apparent to the viewer - is who is behind the laconic voice over. Walsh is a sleazy private investigator out to double cross his employer, Jones is a morally upstanding lawman who looks on with increasing disbelief at the violent crime scenes he is faced with. Both films concern bungled crimes, red herrings, and vital clues hidden away in cheap motel rooms. But where Blood Simple is an intricate clockwork mechanism that invites the audience to watch the characters scurry around like rats in a maze, No Country eschews explanations and takes the senseless violence of its world as a given. A deputy examining the aftermath of a drug deal turned shootout remarks "they even shot the dog!" and then a few scenes later we are shown Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) - at that stage the main audience identification figure - put into a situation where he has to do exactly that, in a climax of a terrific chase sequence which begins with him being pursued across the plains in the dead of night by two armed men in a truck and ends with the wounded Moss desperately swimming down a swiftly running stream by the pre-dawn light, the soon to be dead hound in hot pursuit.

No Country even manages to recall Raising Arizona - the famous scene where the murderous Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) challenges a gas station proprietor to a high stakes coin toss resembles the black flip side of the scene in Arizona where two bumbling prison escapees turned kidnappers hold up a small grocery store, with the classic dialogue exchange:

(re: balloons) 
These blow up into funny shapes at all?

Well no. Unless round is funny.

But if No Country For Old Men has a true sibling in the Coens' body of work, it must surely be Fargo. Both films feature a canny, moral law enforcement officer tracking criminals across desolate landscapes by the frequently bloody aftermath of their crimes. The snowbound Minnesota of Fargo is as harsh and unforgiving as the dusty plains of No Country - Fargo discovers a beautiful contrast between the vast landscape and the warm places humans huddle inside, as well as making maximum usage of the clue concealing properties of snow. But the real connection between the films are the police officers played by Frances McDormand (Fargo's Marge Gunderson) and Tommy Lee Jones (No Country's Sheriff Bell). Marge and Sherrif Bell are not the focus at the beginning of the films, which both set up other protagonists and conflicts, allowing McDormand and Jones to slowly creep into the story (Marge Gunderson doesn't appear until about half an hour into Fargo) before they eventually become the emotional core of their respective films. The characters are also an interesting study in contrasts, from the most obvious difference (that of gender) to the fact that Marge eventually finds and overcomes her quarry, whereas Bell never comes face to face with Chigurh, and the film makes it pretty clear that he would be unlikely to emerge the victor from such a confrontation: Chigurh is as unknowable and implacable a force of evil as Michael Myers in Halloween (1978, John Carpenter).  Marge Gunderson also has a more optimistic outlook than Sheriff Bell - No Country ends with Bell looking forward (at least subconsciously) to being released from this world, where the heavily pregnant Marge is in the process of creating a new life herself.

The remarkable thing about how heavily No Country For Old Men draws from the Coens' earlier work is that it is adapted with extraordinary fidelity (to a fault - the last page of the novel is a great ending to a book, but I'd argue it doesn't work as the final scene to a film) from Cormac McCarthy's novel. All the elements discussed above come directly - and in many cases, just about word-for-word - from the novel. Was McCarthy watching Blood Simple and Raising Arizona when outlining his story, perhaps?

No Country For Old Men, I believe, marks the beginning of a true second wind for the Coens. They're no longer trying to fit in to Hollywood, rather Hollywood is giving them the resources to make films exactly how they want to, only now with the very best actors (and stars, even) and the sort of marketing campaigns which films like Miller's Crossing (still their most perfect film as far as I'm concerned) never got to benefit by. If No Country For Old Men is Blood Simple 2.0, I found that watching their next film, Burn After Reading (2008) expecting Raising Arizona 2.0 is a very good way to have expectations confounded. Which of course is what the Coens like to do best - confound expectations. I need to see Burn After Reading again, this time without looking for the patterns I saw in No Country For Old Men, to fully appreciate it, I think. And how heartening that the boys are still making films that are worth going back to see a second time - very rare these days.

1 comment:

Vancetastic said...

I think this is an excellent analysis of the Coens' body of work even though I disagree with your essential theory that No Country for Old Men is nearly flawless. I like to think I am capable of appreciating ambiguity and a lack of clear resolution, and I think Limbo is an excellent example of that. But No Country left me exceptionally frustrated in its steadfast unwillingness to include any of the "money shots," including the death of Josh Brolin's character. I think with No Country, I am more persuaded by its faults than the many things it undoubtedly does well (including the repression of their recent slapstick trends which made an unfortunate comeback in the execrable Burn After Reading). Chief among these for me was the total lack of necessity of Woody Harrelson's character. The Coens' indifference bordering on hostility when they won their Oscars just underlined the fact for me that they are intentionally trying to mess with us for their own twisted enjoyment, and Burn After Reading unfortunately confirmed that.

My top 3:

1) Raising Arizona
2) Fargo
3) Miller's Crossing

I would be just fine flip-flopping #1 and #2.