Tuesday, March 11, 2008

No Country For Old Men

2007, US, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

When No Country For Old Men was first released in November 2007, I found the deluge of media coverage overwhelming - so much so that my desire to see the film leached away (it didn't help that I found the most recent Coen brothers' films to be among their weakest, even though I've generally enjoyed their work). I turn to writing on the Internet more and more when thinking about film, but in this case much of the passionate coverage on blogs was especially off-putting, being both divisive and dismissive (of the film itself, or of dissenting views).
I was struck, too, by the contrast between the ubiquity of a film that benefits from the mainstream publicity machine - and the Internet coattails that develop from this - and those films which have quietly made their way into my consciousness, becoming the more intriguing as a consequence. Just was I was avoiding No Country For Old Men, I was finally discovering the work of Thailand's Apichatong Weersaethakul, for instance, mostly through scattered references across blogs. In the end, it was a recommendation from the best of sources, my parents, that sent us off to the one nearby theatre where the film was still playing, but the experience made me think over how I make decisions about selecting the 100-150 new films I see each year. That's less than many other cinephiles, but it's a rhythm that works with my life, and still allows for a reasonable amount of new discovery, of both new and older films (and good and bad).

The film itself marked what for me was a major return to form - or even advancement - for the Coen brothers, after several recent misfires. While there were intermittent pleasures in both Intolerable Cruelty and their bizarre remake of The Ladykillers, those films feel like out-and-out pastiches of their source materials, whereas No Country For Old Men deconstructs and reassembles the genre elements that inspire it in ways that make them seem surprisingly fresh. That this story of violence is set against the backdrop of the American West seems no surprise, for the landscape itself has a force that often seems to belittle the human attempts to control it; if the conclusion has any allegorical value, it seems to me that it's in this idea that the land endures implacably whatever is thrown at it, while the men and women that inhabit that land inevitably wither. It's a theme explored in much Australian cinema, which makes such strong use of the malevolence of the outback.

Though it's punctuated by brutal episodes of violence - none more so than the chilling first death - there's a paradoxical calm in the Coen brothers' treatment of their material: many of the shots linger much longer than is the current norm in American cinema. This languid rhythm extends to the narrative itself, which, as Stéphane Delorme points out in Cahiers du cinéma, doesn't introduce one of its key characters until almost a quarter of the running time has elapsed. The story advances in unexpected jumps, eliding scenes we might have expected to see, then stopping again for moments that seem equally unexpected - Tommy Lee Jones holding a glass of milk, his silhouette reflected in a television, or pouring a cup of coffee for an uncle on an isolated farm (an abode that wouldn't have been out of place in the harsh rural settings of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford a century earlier). Most of all, it feels as though we're in hands that are in supreme control of their material this time around; the film is beautifully edited and carefully framed, so that even scenes of devastation have an unsettling painterly quality, albeit married with a brutal streak.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States