Sunday, December 9, 2012

American masters

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2007)
Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men is one of the year’s most acclaimed movies. A. O. Scott in The New York Times referred to “the deep satisfaction that comes from witnessing the nearly perfect execution of a difficult task,” and as I write, the picture is the favourite to win the best picture Oscar on a “Gurus of Gold” web site. And I can see that – it’s extraordinarily precise and sustained.

No Country for Old Men

Based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, it has some of the most striking dialogue of the year, perfectly delivered by an ideal cast. It also makes memorable use of silence and space, from wide-open Texas landscapes to claustrophobically menacing motel rooms. The Coens’ famous imagination and flair is evident throughout, in their approach to character, in their editing and staging choices – as the film goes on, their assurance shows in choices that no other directors would likely make.

Did anyone fail to see a “but” arriving at the end of that? Yeah, I don’t really like the film that much. The litmus test for me might be the character of Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem. He's a dedicated sociopathic killer, racking up over a dozen bodies I think in the movie’s course, while on the trail of some $2 million in missing money. His quarry is Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a regular trailer park guy who happened on the scene of a bloody shoot-out and made off with the spoils (not realizing that the bag containing the money also hides an electronic locator). Tommy Lee Jones is the local sheriff, appalled at the evil that men do and doubting his own capacity to stand much more of it.

Bardem is another emerging Oscar favourite – like Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, he creates a wildly distinctive variation on conventional nightmares. But Chigurh doesn’t evolve one iota from his first scene to his last. He starts off like the worst thing you’ve ever seen, and the main thesis on the character is that he goes on that way, long after any conventional sleazebag would have called it a day (there’s some entertaining, and quite persuasive, argument on the web that Chigurh is ultimately best viewed as supernatural).

This is amusing in the blackest of ways, but I wonder how excited anyone should get over so abstract a concept. As I’ve said before, hitmen, serial killers and their ilk are the most over-represented profession in movies, and I have trouble taking seriously any director who still traffics in this stuff. As a current contrast, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead becomes almost as monstrous, but he doesn’t start out that way, and his trajectory (within the parameters of movie conventions) is fascinating as a moral tale on the price of hubris. 

Going Downhill

No Country for Old Men of course doesn’t just create this terrible individual for the hell of it. Near the end, Jones and another sheriff ruminate on coarsening times (it’s set in 1980), on kids with “bones through their noses”: it started going downhill, says Jones, when people stopped saying “sir” and “ma’am.” This, for sure, is a valid theme for great filmmakers – not that we’d be better off going back to those traditional modes, but certainly the gulf between the glitzy surface of modern culture and the underlying trends and exposures is frightening, and it’s continuing to escalate no matter how many “green issues” of glossy magazines we’re presented with.

However, the prevalence of small-town bloodbaths triggered by single-minded psychos is a singularly unhelpful way of getting at this theme. The film never flags as a narrative machine, but becomes increasingly repetitive and borderline boring as anything more than that. Jones’ mournfulness is well-played, but starts to feel like an affectation, and the movie keeps adding on more and more scenes that seem like endings, as if caught in some kind of existential headlights. I came out with respectful admiration, but limited enthusiasm, and even that’s dwindled over the twenty-four hours since then.

I’ve been in this place with the Coens before. I’ve seen all the movies, but I’m not sure I’ve seen any of them more than once (maybe Fargo, but I don’t think the repeat investment paid off) and I’m straining to cite one truly interesting or provocative thing I ever learned from any of them. I guess maybe I learned a bit about how people talk in Minnesota, so that’s something.

I’m Not There

Todd Haynes is another much-admired American director, although his reputation is more of a niche thing. His new I’m Not There isn’t calculated to change that – it’s as deliberate a head-scratcher as anyone’s come up with recently. A meditation on the life of Bob Dylan, represented by six different actors playing different versions (or evocations) of the man at different points in his life (or different extrapolations of his myth), poetically intertwined and juxtaposed.

It’s quite stunningly achieved. It’s not hard to grasp the basic point, that Dylan the man is the least significant thing about “Dylan” the influence – after forty five years in the eye of popular culture, he’s spawned more images and impacts and shifts and consequences than can ever be pulled back together. Dylan isn’t black of course, and isn’t a reincarnation of Billy The Kid and so forth, but those influences live in his immense historical footprint; at once playful and highly rigorous, Haynes’ film is like unwrapping DNA, throwing in some viruses and filigree, and throwing it into a display case where it continually half-reassembles itself while half -mutating into something else.

This movie is also tipped for an acting Oscar, for Cate Blanchett’s work as Dylan in his Don’t Look Back period. It’s a fine performance, but I got into the concept enough to wish it had gone a step further, with Blanchett simply portraying Dylan as a woman. No matter. Haynes executes this project with enormous panache – it’s immensely visually and tonally varied (from pseudo documentary to utter poetic association), a constant tumble of allusion and connection. Sometimes it’s a bit gimmicky of course, but even when you don’t understand some of Haynes’ choices – such as the relative time devoted to the marital squabbling of Heath Ledger’s incarnation and his French wife – they’re intriguingly executed and thematically provocative within the overall scheme.

Of course, I suppose you could say that the nature of celebrity is even more over-examined in movies than the nature of evil – and that’s true, but not in this way. The Coens could make a nuanced and distinctive movie about Bob Dylan, no doubt, but at its heart would be someone doing a really good impersonation of him for two hours, with maybe a secondary character (perhaps played by Tommy Lee Jones) delivering beautifully written, soulful elegies about the meaning of it all. I’d go to see it, and afterwards I’d shrug and move on.

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