Saturday, February 21, 2009

Last Year's Oscar-winning Best Picture: "No Country For Old Men"

No Country For Old Men is a stark genre piece with the unmistakable quality of auteurs Joel & Ethan Coen. The film is an admirable experiment in shaking audience expectations. It keeps enough expected motifs and set pieces to give it a suspense thriller identity, but the narrative is purposefully derailed along the journey.

The set-up is concise and the three main characters defined immediately: a local Texas man comes upon a drug deal gone wrong and sees an opportunity to run off with the $2 million left behind-- a hired killer is after him, and the town sheriff is behind the two of them. Although he's a supporting character to the action, Tommy Lee Jones' Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is the audience's connection to reality. As Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) reaps havock, Sheriff Bell represents normalcy. His opening narration is a comment on acceptance of life and also to an extent the experience of watching movies ("OK, I'll be a part of this world"). It's as if the Coens, knowing how off-the-wall their material can be, decided that this time around they'd put in someone to represent us (or at least identified it in the source material). Again, with Bell we have a well-known filmic device to hold onto, until the final moments when even he, spinning a tale about a dream he had about his father, enters Coen territory. It's been frequently said the the greatest movies all comment at least in some small way on the movies themselves. This is one of the strengths of No Country for Old Men, and the Coen's style. Their films seem to dare us to reject them: their originality almost always changes our opinion.

The creation of Anton Chigurh in all his glory, from speech pattern to bad haircut, is so inspired as to instantly place him in cinema history. He's unforgettable. What makes him that much more frightening, is, after seeing him stalking his prey-- almost a spectre in his movement and manners-- we also see that he's human, when at one point he must tend to real life flesh and blood wounds.

Another memorable aspect of the production of No Country for Old Men is its sound design-- and it's ability to draw attention to itself. There's the flipping of Chigurh's coin, the squeeking of the suitcase in the air duct, the unscrewing of the lightbulb in the hotel shootout, the thump of the air gun as it punches out a door's lock cylinder, the shattering of glass as a result of explosions and crashes. If you've seen the movie, a list like this brings each of those sounds to life. The effect is not a showy one, it's just another "clue" to the audience that No Country is not typical, plus serves to remind us that we are watching a movie.

No Country for Old Men, perhaps goes overboard in its rejection of the norms of the suspense thriller. The final confrontation is not the one the audience is expecting, which would have been fine if that aspect of the story had been further developed, i.e. the characterization and storyline of Kelly MacDonald's "Carla Jean Moss." Even an experimental film narrative must provide satisfaction and I don't think the audience is satisfied by the fate of any of the charcters or the way the story closes. There's a major "I don't get it" factor if you will.

But despite this overall cloud, it's the kind of movie you feel compelled to watch again, perhaps hoping this time to find that missing piece. Just like the way that RKO studio's tampering of The Magnificent Ambersons seems to somehow fit the movie's own theme of loss, so too does No Country For Old Men's obscurity serve it's own theme of the randomness of the world-- it's imperfection turn's back on itself.

No Country For Old Men (2007): An experimental narrative that toys with audience expectations while providing compelling devices of the suspense thriller, yet whose fulfilment can best be described by its own tagline, "There are no clean getaways."

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