(2007) dir. Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
viewed: 11/13/07 at Century San Francisco Centre, SF, CA
The Coen brothers have long been favorites of mine. I am pretty sure that I saw Blood Simple (1984) back in the day, but my frist awareness of them came probably with Raising Arizona (1987) and on and on it’s been. And it’s been great. Their films are among the best American films in the past 20 years and up until a couple years back what had been their weakest film, The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), was still entertaining. But then WHAM!!!! Something happened around 2001 after one of their best films, O Brother, Whereart Thou? (2000), they suddenly hit not merely a slump but actually rolled down into actually making bad films.
2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There was interesting enough but not overly special. But that was followed up by 2003’s Intolerable Cruelty, which, while entertaining, lacked some of the visual strengths and narrative strenghts that their films are so well known for. And then came The Ladykillers (2004), which I saw when I wasn’t updating this blog, so I will simply recap by saying that it was fucking awful. It would have been awful by anyone who had made it, but for the Coen brothers to have worked on it, it was downright shocking and terrible. I won’t belabor the point, but I would say that The Ladykillers is among the worst films that I have seen in the past five years.
So, I was wondering what they were up to.
No Country for Old Men is certainly a return to form for them. Adapted from a Corman McCarthy novel, it’s a world of 1980’s small town Texas and crimes and criminals of gothic proportions. It has some Blood Simple to it, a bit of Fargo (1996), and probably a couple of others. Among the genres that the Coen brothers have spent much of their time, differring types of crime films, some more noir than others, some more situational.
As in Fargo, the narrative follows a small town sheriff (this time, the aged Texan Tommy Lee Jones as opposed the the unflappable and pregnant Dakotan Frances McDormand) and his trek on the trail of a series of brutal and senselessly violent crimes and criminals. This is an interesting point because McDormand’s character, Marge, took in the brutality with a certain lack of awe yet simple humanism which was played out in her twangy ability to handle the violence (which was brutal too — the woodchipper and Steve Buscemi come to mind) and yet be able to go home to her postage stamp painting husband and her unborn child.
Jones is a much more beaten down perception on crime and violence, and the criminal(s) in No Country for Old Men are not the bumbling and forsaken losers, but rather the most intelligent, well-spoken perfectionist killers embodied in Javier Bardem’s unflinching Anton Chigurh, whose capacity for brutality and ruthlessness is only mitigated by his warped sense of idealism and humor. Jones’ character has seen it all. He doesn’t need to return to crime scenes unnecessarily. And he actively tries to fathom “the evil that men do”, reading newspaper accounts and questioning the breadth of visciousness in the world that he inhabits. It pushes him so far, a dedicated third generation West Texas sheriff who has taken pride in his work and his family’s history with law enforcement, that he quits his job.
He also doesn’t get his man. Unlike Fargo, the criminals are not brought to justice, and the innocent victims continue to die. It’s a more pessimistic film, I suppose. It’s hard to read the Coen’s films sometimes for such depth of theme. They are often criticized for a distance of character and emotion in their films. I don’t know that is so much the case here, especially as Tommy Lee Jones fully evokes the state of world-weariness that perhaps is the film’s true heart. I don’t know exactly what to say there.
The film is excellent as are Jones, Javier Bardem, and Josh Brolin. Some great beauty is evoked from the shots of the barren West Texas desert and the hotels and small town spaces in which the action unfolds. There is also the classic humor and unusual, strange dialogue that the Coens are also so noted for. To be honest, this is one of the best new films that I have seen this year. It’s still settling in on me, I guess. But I like it. And I am thankful that the Coens have made another excellent film, one far more in their style and character.