Skip to main content

Review: No Country For Old Men

No Country For Old Men has been hailed as a bona fide masterpiece by just about every living critic, so I want to make a few comments slightly to the contrary, maybe like one of the ornery 'ol coots in the film itself. The directors are smug as smug can be, and always have been. Their triumphs (like Fargo) seem to be achieved despite their winks and nods. Compared to sublime, dark masters of the post-modern, like David Lynch, their cinematic works seem like the Mad Magazine spoofs of the real things. That was their skill and brilliance, this pastiche-style. This new picture is being rewarded with awe, and shucks it's great, because it has none of that. It is as if someone stripped off all the layers of paint on some old farmhouse floors, and let the original grain earn its keep.

The mise-en-scene is controlled, and exact. The camera is steady, and it is eagle-eyed. I very much enjoyed the book this movie is based on, and can attest to the verisimilitude of the transition from page to screen - the look and feel of the imagined moment is complete. There are several key locations - signalled by the John Ford reference near the beginning (watch the vehicles throughout as a key image-system) - that establish this is the modern, serious Western films like Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, or even Unforgiven, tried to kill off.
It is, of course, like The Searchers, except this time, the one searching is pure evil, and, essentially (but not certainly, the film's hinge) wins. Though in The Searchers, Wayne was morally tainted, too. What I am getting at is, this is a reverent take on America, men, and The West. Tommy Lee Jones is terrific as the mainly passive, measured, ruminating, ageing, Good Sheriff, the man who lost the West, but did so with gravitas, dignity, and decency, intact. His final dream-soliloquy expresses this vision utterly - his father is riding into the darkness, with a horn of fire, to blaze the trail. The truth is, it is darkness ahead, God may be mainly absent, but there will be fire, there will be fathers. I love this sad, nostalgic tone - captured well, oddly enough, in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings Trilogy, also a Western in genre - and also about the fading of a whole way of life, an enchanted, fabled past - in this case, America's frontier expansion, at the expense of much blood and treasure, and many Native American lives.

The wide open spaces are now sun-bleached, and a mess of corpses, and meaningless money just left in the open, as good as gold, or oil, and as bad. The biblical monotony of this film is unleavened by the Avenging Assassin, plated by Javier Bardem. He seemed to me to be channeling Nicholas Cage, The Coen Bros.'s own cut-rate Cary Grant, in terms of sullen nerdiness and weird danger. The role has been described as star-making and brilliant, but, when the dust settles, will likely be seen as simply dull and strange. The best performance is from Josh Brolin, who comes from nowhere and has a solid, manly Cowboy presence that seems uncannily sturdy. The main lack in the picture - which at times is as thrilling as the best Hitchcock (especially in the three key motel/hotel sequences, all homages to Psycho) - is the one central to the ultimate theme: that there is no final confrontation between man and devil on this soiled earth. That is, the Showdown, the gun battle, is deferred, endlessly - the West is the victim of some eternal recurrence, where evil gets its scalp, and god-fearing, gun-toting men, take their chances - or, as Moss's wife decides, much to her credit - they don't. Because there can be no final meeting of the mad killer, and the good man, the suspense dries up when Moss's blood gets shed for the final time. The last reel is a hollow, mournful coda to a beautifully-rendered, oddly-inert drama. Less a film than a morality tale, this is latterday Bergman in Texas, bone-dry and emblematic as hell. I guess what I am finally trying to say here is this: all the other Coen movies were Genre Movies Playing at Being Art House - this one here's an Art Film, Playing At Genre. Go in thinking this is going to be just a funny, dark thriller, and you'll be puzzled by its fearsome, slow-running depths, and arid desert spaces. Four Specs.
2 comments

Popular posts from this blog

AMERICA PSYCHO

According to the latest CBS, ABC, etc, polls, Clinton is still likely to beat Trump - by percentile odds of 66% to 33% and change. But the current popular vote is much closer, probably tied with the error of margin, around 44% each. Trump has to win more key battleground states to win, and may not - but he is ahead in Florida...

We will all know, in a week, whether we live in a world gone madder, or just relatively mad.

While it seems likely calmer heads will prevail, the recent Brexit win shows that polls can mislead, especially when one of the options is considered a bit embarrassing, rude or even racist - and Trump qualifies for these, at least.

If 42-45% of Americans admit they would vote for Trump, what does that say about the ones not so vocal? For surely, they must be there, as well. Some of the undecided will slide, and more likely they will slide to the wilder and more exciting fringe candidate. As may the libertarians.

Eyewear predicts that Trump will just about manage to win th…

DANGER, MAN

Like a crazed killer clown, whether we are thrilled, horrified, shocked, or angered (or all of these) by Donald Trump, we cannot claim to be rid of him just yet. He bestrides the world stage like a silverback gorilla (according to one British thug), or a bad analogy, but he is there, a figure, no longer of fun, but grave concern.

There has long been a history of misogynistic behaviour in American gangster culture - one thinks of the grapefruit in the face in The Public Enemy, or Sinatra throwing a woman out of his hotel room and later commenting he didn't realise there was a pool below to break her fall, or the polluted womb in Pacino'sScarface... and of course, some gangsta rap is also sexist.  American culture has a difficult way with handling the combined aspects of male power, and male privilege, that, especially in heteronormative capitalist enclaves, where money/pussy both become grabbable, reified objects and objectives (The Wolf of Wall Street for instance), an ugly fus…

OSCAR SMOSHCAR

The Oscars - Academy Awards officially - were once huge cultural events - in 1975, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Shirley MacLaineandBob Hope co-hosted, for example - and Best Picture noms included The Conversation and Chinatown. Godfather Part 2 won. Last two years, movies titled Birdman and Spotlight won, and the hosts and those films are retrospectively minor, trifling. This year, some important, resonant films are up for consideration - including Hidden Figures and Moonlight, two favourites of this blog. Viola Davis and Denzel Washington will hopefully win for their sterling performances in Fences. However, La La Land - the most superficial and empty Best Picture contender since Gigi in 1959 (which beat Vertigo) - could smite all comers, and render this year's awards historically trivial, even idiotic.

The Oscars often opt for safe, optimistic films, or safe, pessimistic films, that are usually about white men (less often, white women) finding their path to doing the right thin…