Thursday, November 15, 2007

No Country For Old Men


Back to our regularly scheduled programing: reviews written by me! I've seen so much in the last few weeks, ranging from great (Lake of Fire) to surprisingly good (Into the Wild) to surprisingly mediocre (American Gangster) to inexplicably overrated (Before the Devil Knows Your Dead) to totally confounding (Redacted). I wish I had the time to write about all of them, but I sadly do not.

Nevertheless, I did find a few spare hours to knock out a review of the new Coen Brothers film, the brilliant and terrifying No Country For Old Men. It's a return to form for the filmmakers and one of the year's best. Check it out if you get the opportunity, and check out my review here and below.

No Country For Old Men

George Bernard Shaw once wrote "Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh." The Coen Brothers would likely agree. In the films of Joel and Ethan, those oddball, sibling auteurs from Minnesota, death is often needless and usually pointless. It is indiscriminant, too, claiming the guilty and the innocent alike: you could be an amateur crook killed by your unhinged partner-in-crime (then stuffed head-first into a buzzing wood-chipper) or just an innocent bystander mowed down in the crossfire. Death is bad timing and worse luck. But for the Coens, it's also fair game fodder for the blackest of black comedy—no demise is too random, too untimely, or too completely unjust that it can't be exploited for a cheap laugh or two. And that's the boys' persistent stock-and-trade: putting a crooked smile on grotesque violence and air-quotes on human suffering. They might call it "gallows humor," but it's really just stone-cold nihilism with a wink and a nudge.

No Country For Old Men is different, though. "I laugh sometimes. Bout the only thing you can do," says Tommy Lee Jones' grizzled lawman early into the Coens' latest, and it's probably the closest the sardonic brothers have ever come to laying down an artistic mission statement. Thing is, this time around they aren't laughing. A fiercely powerful neo-noir set against the sun-blazed Texas desert, No Country may be the first Coen Brothers movie to treat senseless death not as a sick joke, as farce or as folly, but as honest-to-God tragedy, the glaring symptom of a sick and ailing culture. It strips the filmmakers' trademark style down to its bare-bones essentials, neatly trimming off all but the scarcest hints of irony and caricature. What's left is as savage and serious and starkly lyrical as anything they've ever done—a nerve-shredding crime caper with a heavy heart, allegory forged in blood and sweat and grime and dust.

If this seems like pretty heavy stuff from the guys whose last two films were the respective nadir bottom-scrapers Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, it's worth noting that the gravitas here are appropriated from a source outside of the boys' own film-geek noggins. The Coens' first literary adaptation (they can call O Brother Where Art Thou? a Southern-fried Odyssey all they please, but I'm not biting), No Country For Old Men borrows its title, its plotting, and its air of pensive melancholia from one of Cormac McCarthy's tough-as-nails, neo-Western page-turners. Finding guidance and structure in the meaty text, the brothers faithfully render the details of the iconic author's knotty narrative and (more impressively) the sparse, bleak poetry of his prose. Yet the blood-soaked final product, a steep plummet into inexorable darkness, is as intrinsically Coen as it is McCarthy. Centering on the discovery and violent pursuit of a stolen bag of money—that ultimate noir MacGuffin—the film recalls the white-knuckle tension and tightly wound genre mechanics of the brothers' very first effort, Blood Simple. No Country thus feels less like an evolution of their style and more like a refreshing return to basics, belated payoff on the promise of their low-rent, no-nonsense debut.

Stumbling upon a gruesome, real-life murder tableau in the Texas desert—a drug deal gone horribly awry, all dead bodies and abandoned vehicles—lone hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) walks away sight unseen, the aforementioned blood money tucked snugly under one arm. His first mistake of many is returning to the scene, bringing water to a dying man—in a world of such ruthless amorality, compassion can get you killed. Narrowing dodging his relentless, dogged pursuers (one an actual, snarling dog), Llewelyn goes on the run. Hot on his trail is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a cold-blooded, madman professional whose weapon of choice is a gas-powered cattle stun gun, great for punching gaping holes in doors and skulls. Two steps behind them both is Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who's often little more than an after-the-fact spectator to the slaughter, arriving just minutes too late, forced to clean up the mess left by his dueling quarries.

On the surface, that's all there is to the film: an episodic, three-man game of cat-and-mouse—chase, engage, escape, and repeat. Yet the way the Coens milk this simple, insular premise for all the tension it's worth is nothing short of remarkable. Even at their most immature or shallow, the brothers have always been formal masters, and the razor-sharp, breathlessly intense No Country finds them at the peak of their abilities. The hotel room showdowns are marvels of economy and trip-wire execution—Hitchcock himself would have admired their use of long silences and empty space, of off-screen sound and claustrophobic composition—but they're not nearly as unsettling as the moments in between. A suffocating fear of the awful and the inevitable seeps into every quiet corner of the film. It's fatalism, the one essential quality of noir that's always eluded the Raymond Chandler-loving duo, and the one that Cormac McCarthy has always had in spades. Just as he did with The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford—2007's other great American film—veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins reflects and inflates that existential dread, finding its visual complement in the vast, lonely, awe-inspiring desolation of the Texas landscape.

Death looms large over all of No Country, and it finds physical, terrifying embodiment in the character of Anton Chigurh. Sporting a silly haircut that belies his utter seriousness, he's nothing less than an unstoppable force of nature, as merciless a killing machine as the shark from Jaws—and like that beast, his terrible presence is felt even when off-screen. Yet he's also a man, and the key to Bardem's chilling performance is the way that he affords this cold, methodical psychopath a measure of eccentric humanity. He has a personality, however muted, and there's a tinge of dark humor (the film's only one) in his bone-dry rapport with his would-be victims. (Check out the scary/funny scene in the gas station.) Internalizing his anger and fear, Brolin's in-over-his-head Llewelyn is a formidable adversary, as pragmatic and matter-a-fact as Chigurh, if not as remorseless and single-minded. It's a nearly wordless performance, and a subtle, unaffected one—Llewelyn is a far cry from the over-the-top sleazebags Brolin played elsewhere this year, in Grindhouse and American Gangster. Watching these on-the-lam desperados attack and elude each other is like taking a master class in macho cipher understatement.

Relegated to the sidelines for much of the first half, it's the weary Sheriff Bell who proves to be the beating heart and wounded soul of No Country For Old Men. By now, Tommy Lee Jones has perfected his own brand of tough, lived-in cynicism (see In the Valley of the Elah, which he capably carried all by his lonesome) and the aged actor lends an unsentimental gravity to the film's carefully composed, bookend monologues. As the voice of moral reason, Jones' Bell is not unlike Marge Gunderson of Fargo, bearing incredulous witness to the tragedy and bloodshed around him, doing his best to keep his footing in a perilously amoral land. (One could even apply Margey's climatic "all for a little money" speech to the reckless carnage of this new film.) Then again, Bell is a much sadder, more jaded figure, and this beautiful downer of a crime thriller ends not with warm reconciliation—loved ones taking stock in what is good in their lives—but a tired old man trying in vain to make sense of a dark and uncaring world. "Death will come for us all," say the Coens, with nary a snicker or a smirk. It's a bitter pill to swallow, but it goes down easier as a lament than a punch-line.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Guest Review: The Darjeeling Limited


So here's the scoop: for once, I'm posting something that I didn't pen. It's a review of Wes Anderson's latest, The Darjeeling Limited, from part-time critic, full-time screenwriter Josh Staman. Why am I putting it up on my blog? Three reasons, really: (a) he's my buddy/ocassional writing partner, (b) it's a pretty good review of a movie I haven't written up myself, and (c) I more or less agree with his assessment of this modest success from the caught-in-an-artistic-rut Anderson.

Expect more original reviews and content from yours truly in the near future. In the meantime, enjoy!

THE DARJEELING LIMITED by Josh Staman

Recent photos have revealed a different side to Wes Anderson than the spindly dork-wad who directed Bottle Rocket, the man so visibly uncomfortable at the MTV Movie Awards, where he somehow reduced Janeane Garofalo and Ben Stiller to fanboys on only his first movie, and somehow charmed the heart of Scott Rudin enough to allot for his Felllini-esque fantasias to come. These days with his dapper, particular wardrobe, Wes Anderson seems more at home in a Wes Anderson movie than directing a Wes Anderson movie. Harsh? Perhaps, but only out of love. More than even Fellini, the degree to which Wes Anderson expanded his filmic world (and it’s all the same Wes-World) is rather unparalleled: the ramshackle tender goof of Bottle Rocket, the Truffaut charm of the high school academia in Rushmore, the Salinger’s eye view of New York in The Royal Tenenbaums. The progression was so strong and encompassing that what the filmmaker could possibly do next was a mystery. Under the sea for The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou! Off to India for The Darjeeling Limited! It’s almost fitting that his next film is an animated Roald Dahl adaptation of The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Even his titles have an inscrutable eloquence to them, something that shouldn’t work and yet feels downright regal.

The Darjeeling Limited is no exception for the filmmaker. The movie is enjoyable when not infuriating, dazzling when not flaccid, so sure-footed when not scrambled. We begin with a nifty red herring prologue: Bill Murray plays a business man late for his train, holding onto his fedora, careening through the bustling town, racing after the train as it leaves, running, running…and then Adrien Brody appears beside him, also tackling the same train, but younger and quicker. And then the film goes into slow motion as he reaches the train to the dueling strings of The Kinks’ “This Time Tomorrow”. The young has succeeded, the old has not; they make eye contact, and they’re gone. He is the middle Whitman brother Peter, sandwiched (an apt description) between mustachioed rapscallion novelist Jack (Jason Schwartzman), and overbearing and incredibly injured Francis (Owen Wilson). They are reunited for the first time since their father’s funeral, they all have their secrets (Jack is calling his ex-girlfriend’s answering machine, Peter is having a baby with a woman he always planned on divorcing, and Francis tried to kill himself), they are off on a spiritual journey to see their mother, and they’re on The Darjeeling Limited, a wonderment of a train that provides for some unpretentious silliness as their personalities careen.

If Wes Anderson were to allow their spiritual journey to remain aboard the Darjeeling Limited, the film would be a minor joy. They are quickly shuttled off for reasons of excessive destruction and the film progresses to an Indian funeral and a monastery and the film more or less deflates on its quest for purpose, the former of which is especially disingenuous – a word I must use to label most of this film. The death of an Indian child leads to the path of redemption, and yet there is something inherently (again!) disingenuous about how both Wes Anderson casually offs a child for the benefit of white hipsters and how the white characters march in line in slow motion to another song by The Kinks, making it entirely about them. Wes Anderson denies that all of his films are autobiographical but it’s fairly easy to see that this script (which was written with Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola in India) is full of little moments that feel lived, shared, and scribbled down. Wes Anderson digs the culture, but not nearly enough to immerse us in it more than halfway. A telling scene: Jack having sex with Rita in the bathroom, her pleading for him not to cum inside her. “Welcome to India: Please Don’t Cum Inside Us!”

What I grapple with now is how the film will hold on repeat viewing. Even The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a film as unruly as its name, is something of a delight, an unexpectedly genuine film about middle age and a far more poignant and insightful one than the suburban malaise of American Beauty. As of now, The Darjeeling Limited has the feel of a lark stuck awkwardly between Hope/Crosby mayhem and Renoir humanism, and all signs point to a film too void of form. As in Donnie Darko, as in Garden State, the film epilogues to a slow-motion lateral-parading cast that now in the hands of Wes Anderson again feels routine. What might become of this man were he, like Scorsese before him, forced to return to grassroots film campaigning without Frames Per Second Toggling at his disposal?