Sunday, January 18, 2009

Joel and Ethan Fink

"It's just goddam beyond everything. What's it mean? What's it leadin' to?" -El Paso Sheriff (Rodger Boyce) in No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men won an Academy Award for Best Picture last year. Additional awards went to Joel and Ethan Coen for Best Screenplay and Best Direction. I have seen nine of their films by now, including Blood Simple (1984), Barton Fink (1991), Fargo (1996) and The Big Lebowski (1998). But until Fargo I never thought much of their work. Since Fargo, however, the Coens have returned, as it says in Proverbs, (1) to their vomit.

Fargo and No Country for Old Men have quite a few things in common: the central characters are officers of the law; there are large amounts of cash that characters attempt to keep for themselves and hide where only they can find it; and there are psychopaths who murder people without reason or feeling. Both films rely heavily on specific landscapes - Fargo on a frozen north and No Country on a gold and russet desert southwest. (2) But Fargo was dominated by a whimsical approach to its characters and the messes they get themselves into. No Country is dead serious throughout, with occasional gallows humor for relief, supplied by the wry, inventive West Texan speech, in which you find this here and that there and killed becomes killt.

I have not read the Cormac McCarthy novel on which No Country was based. But on the evidence of this and other films based on his writings (All the Pretty Horses), I have no sense of urgency to do so. Having read a sample of his writing, I found it an unhappy marriage of Don Delillo and Louis Lamour. No Country is a messy story of senseless murder and growing old in a place where such a thing has become commonplace. For awhile, it is an effective thriller, but the Coens, alas, were aiming at something more serious. This explains all the aggravating loose ends left dangling at the film's conclusion.

Javier Bardem won the Academy Award for best Supporting Actor (and wherefore could I not pronounce So What?) for his portrayal of a kind of serial killer for hire. He is not given a whole lot of screen time to construct anything like a real character, and is merely a creepy cipher. Perhaps as compensation, he is given an awful lot of hair, since the film is set in 1980 for no intrinsic reason except the Coens were being needlessly faithful to the book. The sheriff, played with trademark fatigue by Tommy Lee Jones never meets the killer, although he anticipates an appointment with him at the end of the film.

Josh Brolin plays a luckless Vietnam veteran who stumbles on a satchelful of cash and, seeing it as his one big break, tries to keep it. Brolin, who gets up in the middle of the night because a gut-shot Mexican asked him for some water, injects the film with an authenticity it obviously did not know how to handle. His violent death, though predictable, comes as an unpleasant surprise. (3) For the remainder of the film the Coens (and McCarthy) owe more to Phillip Larkin than they do to Yeats:

All that's left to happen
Is some deaths (my own included).
Their order, and their manner,
Remain to be learnt.

(1) Proverbs 26:11

(2) Though shot mostly in New Mexico (by the splendid Roger Deakins), parts of No Country were shot where George Stevens used the same locations for Giant, near Marfa, Texas.

(3) The Coens also owe a little to Sam Peckinpah for The Getaway (1972) for the Eagle Hotel scenes.

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