Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Llewelyn and the satchel

Okay. No Country for Old Men finally made it to DVD & I got it from Netflix right away, watching it twice in the same evening, once with Krishna who gave up shortly after the first coin toss scene because it was too violent & creepy, once with my son Jesse, just to make sure I wasn’t missing something.¹ My sense after the second viewing was that, yes, it was a good film, tho not a great one & hardly the best I’d seen made in the past year. Not only was it not better than There Will Be Blood, it was a steep step downwards from It’s Not Me, Once, Into the Wild or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Maybe even Juno. Among Coen brother projects, I’d put it somewhere around The Man Who Wasn’t There, a good little flick with lots to look at, but also deeply flawed.

Well Hollywood has been known to give the Best Picture Oscar to lesser films before, whether to a bon-bon like Shakespeare in Love when Saving Private Ryan was sitting right next to it, or to real dogs like Chicago, Out of Africa or, the most feral of all pooch pics, Rocky. No Country isn’t in the canine category, but still it makes you wonder. I know that a lot of the Academy’s voters are older & no longer really active in the industry, tho I would have expected them to react not unlike my wife to this updated version of The Missouri Breaks, the Arthur Penn-Marlon Brando-Jack Nicholson fiasco that attempted to construct a film around violence the way a porn director paces sex scenes (or did at least before the web wiped out the big budget XXX-travaganzas). This felt instead more like a remake of Blood Simple, the debut flick the Coen brothers made over 20 years ago. Tho Blood Simple won Best Picture at the Independent Spirit Award (& it won at Sundance the year before), it wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar.² Maybe the voters this were feeling guilty for only giving the truly gifted Coen brothers one Best Picture for Fargo. After all, they’d passed on everything from The Hudsucker Proxy to The Big Lebowski to Brother, Oh Wherefore Art Thou. You can’t say the Coen boys weren’t due.

A large part of the reason that No Country didn’t work for me was Tommy Lee Jones, one of the finest actors around. In fact, that was precisely the problem. I have seen Jones in so many movies & in so many roles – including the In the Valley of Elah for which he was deservedly nominated for Best Actor – that the sheriff of rather limited intellect just doesn’t come off right. If you listen to his lines & look at his actions in the film, this guy is no bright light. He never catches anybody & doesn’t seem even clued in to the important detail that there are multiple sets of villains after Llewelyn’s ass for absconding with the suitcase with $2 million after he comes across a drug deal turned “OK Corral” in the Texas desert somewhere around Marfa in the year 1980. Sheriff Bell might even had led Llewelyn’s poor little Carla Jean to her doom just by not understanding the nature of the threat. All he does is ride around to squint at the aftermath & pontificate – which he does a lot. To his addled deputy Wendell, to Carla Jean, to a lawman down in El Paso³, finally to a half-crazed paraplegic relative who’s gone from lawman to cat herder himself out there in the desert. Only Sheriff Bell’s wife appears not be buying any, but she’s not enough to keep Jones’ folksiness from turning him into Yoda with a ten-gallon hat. That’s not who Jones wants to be, but it’s who we got.

In a sense, Sheriff Bell should be the most interesting part of this film’s structure. He is the counterpoint, the non-psychopath, the minimalist who doesn’t even draw his gun when he & Wendell first enter Llewelyn’s trailer. Both Javier Bardem’s sociopathic Anton Chigurh and Josh Brolin’s wannabe tough-guy Llewelyn are maximalists – they will do anything to accomplish their goal. A lot of the film is nothing more than watching this excess at work. Like getting across the border with no clothes on. Like the coin-tossing scene, friendo. It has no narrative function whatsoever other than to let us linger awhile watching Chigurh toy with life & death, so that later we will understand the implications when the accountant asks Chigurh “Are you going to kill me?” and Bardem responds, “Well, that depends. Can you see me?” We know without watching what comes next. Ditto the scene at the end with Carla Jean, Chigurh checking his boots on the front porch on his way out for any bloodstains they might have picked up.

Those moments of carnage implied but not shown are part of No Country’s shapeliness & this is a film that cares deeply just how good it looks – like with the cloud over the desert when Llewelyn is aiming at the deer right before he finds the trucks. Or Chigurh’s picking his boots up off the floor and resting them against the bed in the hotel so that Carson Wells’ blood doesn’t sully them while Chigurh chats with Llewelyn on the phone.

Which is why the editing at the Sands motel comes across as so patchwork. There is no reason to show us Chigurh hiding in the shadows as Sheriff Bell enters the crime scene motel room and not to have him kill Bell other than the realization that audiences might not get it from just the unscrewed air vent alone that Chigurh is now the one with the money (the boys on the bikes later comment on the size of the bill he offers for a shirt). Clearly it was the Mexicans who took care of Llewelyn, leaving one of their own dead outside the motel room they never got into, leaving Chiguhr to stroll in knowing right where the money would be hidden. This sequence is so clumsy that it jumps out as possibly a last-minute edit. But even with it, I had to watch the film twice to extract everything that was going on.

In a film that is as controlled as this – I wondered if that cloud was a CGI effect, in fact – such cringe-inducing moments are truly curious. Afterwards, I kept wondering who might have done a better job as Sheriff Bell – Bob Duvall is too obvious – someone whose challenged logic wouldn’t come across as shorthand for wisdom. Then I realized that the choice was obvious all along. There is only one human being truly believable as the kind of bumpkin the Coen brothers want to invoke, and that’s the original: George W. Bush.


¹ In fact, I had. I had not gotten the first time through just who killed Llewelyn & who got the money – that whole sequence at the El Paso Desert Sands motel went by too fast for me, especially with that one gaping edit there at the end.

² Platoon beat out Hannah and Her Sisters, Children of a Lesser God, The Mission and Room with a View.

³ Who gets stuck with the film’s worst lines, complaining about “green hair and bones in their nose” of today’s youth. Really? In 1980 El Paso? Unlikely.


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