16 February 2008

No Country for Old Men

There are swift thematic undercurrents just under the violent surface of No Country for Old Men. From the lean, nuanced writing to the quiet, confident performances and the Coen Bros. restrained direction, the whole film is an exercise in understatement. Yes, there's a lot to digest in this high-minded action/western/thriller. The real question to ask after taking this film in is: really, who gives a shit?

The Coen Bros. can do and have done every type of movie. They have an off-kilter sense of humor, a real mean streak, and an uncanny ability to balance the two. Sometimes they create moments so tense and unnerving that an audience's only recourse is to laugh. Such is the case with most every scene involving Javier Bardem's amoral Anton Chegurh. He's quiet, composed, and sinister, a supremely chilling villain.

Sadly, the rest of the characters exist on another, less involving plane. They are flat, uninteresting people who speak in vague, ambiguous statements, if they speak at all. Tommy Lee Jones' retirement-avoiding sheriff opens and closes the film with two meandering soliloquies that deal with who-freakin'-knows-what. There's man's violent nature, retirement, the conflict in men between staying and going from their chosen lives, the eternal conflict of good and evil, violence begetting violence, and other such high-minded concepts that have fans of Cormac McCarthy's source novel sloppily wetting themselves.

I am a fan of the Coen Bros. and I do appreciate it when filmmakers let their audiences connect the dots. Forcing the audience to figure out what exactly the dots are is another matter, one that I feel should take a back seat to simpleton stuff like interesting characters and emotional thematics.

Make no mistake, I'm not knocking the film for being uniquely literate and intellectual, but strip the rosy prose away from the characters, and No Country for Old Men is a lean thriller about the mechanics of running and hiding with a big bag of money. If the medium is the message, then that is what's happening for two hours. When the Academy Awards do their featurette on this film during the ceremony and someone describes it as a provocative, insightful look into the dark souls of men, please remember that a significant portion of the film's running time is devoted to Josh Brolin screwing and unscrewing air vents.

The presence of Anton Chegurh changes and elevates things. His actions and their curious motivations are in such stark contrast to the film's protagonist that it leaves you craving more. But "less is more" is the theme of the day here, and No Country for Old Men left me underwhelmed. It's tense, involving, and meticulously plotted. I'll even throw in the adjective "diabolical" for good measure. But the hype is too much. If I had stumbled upon this film a few years down the road, I probably would have wondered, "Why haven't more people seen this?" But critics and (gulp) the literati are falling over themselves kissing this film's ass, and all I have to say is, "Really?"

UPDATE: Ask A Ninja agrees with me.

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