No Country for Old Men
Where do I stand now on the Coen brothers? Or to step back a pace, where did I stand on them before No Country for Old Men, their new one? Going into it, I would have said that the flame of their inspiration appeared to be burning a bit low. Intolerable Cruelty had not looked to me, as it looked to so many others, to be a pronounced drop-off, only a subtle drop-off, from their high standard, especially in relation to the sharp drop-offs on either side of it, the preceding hodgepodge of The Man Who Wasn't There and the succeeding remake -- a red flag for sure -- of The Ladykillers. Their few-minute segment earlier this year in Paris, Je T'Aime, albeit one of the bright spots in the film, was too slight to fuel an argument. And frankly it troubled me, as I mentioned well beforehand, that No Country for Old Men would be their first literary adaptation -- another red flag -- and it troubled me all the more after I read the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, an overflowingly bloody pulp thriller, plumped up with folksy first-person social commentary in italics, about a Texas good ole boy who stumbles upon the internecine scene of a drug deal gone bad, makes off with a satchel of cash, and tries to ditch the implacable hired killer (among others) on his trail. Now that I've seen the adaptation, it still troubles me.
The brothers, Joel and Ethan, sharing the writing credit as always and sharing the directing credit as they only began to do with The Ladykillers, were smart to cut down the social commentary -- the Decline of Western Civilization as viewed by an aging third-generation lawman -- to a single block of voice-over at the outset ("Some of the old-time sheriffs never even wore a gun"), and to sprinkle any additional such commentary lightly into the dialogue ("Once you quit hearing 'sir' and 'ma'am,' the rest is soon to follow"). Without those repeated and repetitive interruptions, the simple pursuit narrative -- the killer pursuing the filcher, the lawman pursuing both -- unfolds as lean, linear, streamlined, and yet slow, steady, and long, never very deep. And on the Coens' part, never very inventive.
They have followed McCarthy's blueprint scrupulously, even slavishly, and have bountifully harvested his lip-smacking dialogue; and the major unconventionalities in this mostly conventional thriller are all his. For better or for worse. To have kept the lawman as an observer and commentator, forever a step behind the hunter and hunted, never getting in on the action, feeling helpless and "overmatched," is not just different but meaningful. On the flip side, when we've been privy, every step of the way, through one close shave after another, to the hunted's point of view -- and in fact we identify with this character to the exact extent that if we ourselves had found $2 million in a bag, we'd want to hang onto it -- it's not just different, but perverse, to lose touch with him at a climactic point near the end. (Under the rules of professional conduct, I can't be more specific, but anyone who has seen the movie will know what I mean.) That this comes straight from the book is no justification. On screen it inescapably stacks up as a bigger gaffe than on the page, where, in the nature of the medium, our physical connection with the characters is always more tenuous, illusory, ghostly. Our image of them there, immured in our mind's eye, is limited to verbal description only. If that. Books, in a manner of speaking, are strictly secondhand; movies, firsthand.
The brothers' fidelity to the novel marks the film as not simply one of their less inspired, but also less personal, almost like an assignment from a Hollywood studio of yore, although in reality an assignment they assigned to themselves. (An assignment, admittedly, suited to their temperament.) The specter of ye olde Hollywood studio shadows, too, the overlap in casting between the Coens' film and the recent In the Valley of Elah, sharing, as if from the rolls of contract players, three key members: Tommy Lee Jones, comfortably typecast as the Texas lawman (even if the words on the page might conjure someone more along the lines of Wilford Brimley or Ned Beatty, and thus raise fewer expectations of a final dramatic satisfying showdown), Josh Brolin as the foolhardy good ole boy (slightly smarter, but not sufficiently smarter, than the average Coen malefactor), and, in a small part, Barry Corbin as the lawman's crippled, cat-fancying old crony.
To be sure, the Coens are meticulous technicians, supremely skillful, attentive to the minutest detail. And while the body count climbs numbingly high (the count in their Fargo is about my upper limit outside a war film), the tension in individual set pieces is teased out to an exquisite agony, and with no artificial boost from any background music. (The Coens' regular composer, Carter Burwell, gets credited for the exit music.) I would disagree sharply with those who approvingly link the new film to the brothers' splashy debut, Blood Simple, seeing no basis for this comparison other than the Texas setting and the vomit scene. When the Coens re-cut their immature first film for re-release, it was a better film because they had become better filmmakers. And if, as I keep hearing, their powers in the new film are fully on display, it's only because, paradoxically, their powers are held partly in reserve. There's no gratuitous showing off. Whenever they give you something extra (see, for example, the shot of the scuff marks on the linoleum after a strangulation victim has thrashed his last), they give it at the minimum dose. Making the point, moving on.
Certainly a personal touch, a personal sense of humor, comes into the local-color cameos of gas-station attendant, motel clerk, hotel clerk, trailer-park manager, etc., etc. And perhaps a somewhat unseemly humor, or at least unseemly delight, comes into the characterization of the psychopathic killer, Javier Bardem, with his robotic delivery of lines, his torturous banter, his gimmicky weapon (a compressed-air tank for blowing locks out of doors and blowing holes in heads), and above all his Engelbert Humperdinck haircut circa 1972 (hair humor always being big with the Coens). It was a good idea, again taken straight from the book, to allow the killer some chinks: he's inexplicably in handcuffs when we first meet him, he bleeds when shot, and he is not impervious to accidents of fate, but he even so ascends pretentiously close to a mystical stature -- a force of evil, an ill wind, or, as he is expressly labelled, a "ghost." And the shrimpy Woody Harrelson, for all his outsized cockiness, constitutes bad casting as a hired gun sent to outgun the hired gun. He can inspire no confidence.