January 09, 2008
No Country for Old Men or...The sagebrush did it.
Imagine Raising Arizona without the humour.
This film is based on a book by Cormac McCarthy. Cormac is a dilettante who lives in the desert and plays a loner. And recently like all professional loners he showed up on Oprah looking for money like everybody else. He allowed her to pet him while he played aw shucks. You can guess he gets his dark view of humanity from the mirror. "Publicity shy, very private introverted author of dense prose appears on Oprah. Performs back-flip and talks her leg off."
No Country is a horse opera about a dumb idea that the directors choose to wear down to a frazzle. By opera I mean extravagantly unreal. Men have gunfights in small-town hotels that continue into the street and nobody looks out or comes to see. What's the matter, can't the Coens handle randomness? You have a big car crash on a quiet street and no one comes out of their house. What were they trying to do, save money on actors? No, this is the way it happens in an opera. You can see why Tolstoy hated operas.
In some ways this is a B-western with great actors playing bad actors. All students of Roy Rogers/Red Rider etc. have noted that deputy sheriffs tend to sit with their backs to dangerous suspects to get the story rolling. This being an adult Western the deputy is murdered instead of being conked on the head.
Ben Hecht said the Hollywood mantra is "Gimmick, gimmick; who’s got a gimmick." The Coen’s have a few gimmicks and touches of exotica. The ambling sociopath drags around canisters for his deadly airgun, a weapon for which he has a feelble-minded attachment. He uses it to open doors, kill people and leave clues. The Coens and McCarthy have reached that level of artistry apparently where nobody can say to them that the story is looking goofy.
Another out of date conceit of the Coen’s/Mcarthy is the white American’s romance of the border. The hot tamales start at El Paso. It must be an Eastern thing, a Lou Dobbs daydream; no working hand in the Southwest would believe it. We are expected to take seriously the sight of a pricey looking marriaci band stopping to serenade a dirty banged up half conscious dirt-poor Texan. In this opera the Mexicans as in the old days are a swarthy backdrop. No Country Mexicans travel in groups of course in the way of scary minorities, mostly lose gun-fights and have their bullet-riddled bodies gorgeously displayed like a klansman’s fantasy.
None of the lead actors are obliged to choke and writhe or spit up their own blood; that’s star-power. At the border the Mexican officer is barely awake and only blinks as a white man passes. That is storytelling for suckers.
The Coens and McCarthy have brought out the worst in each other; smugness married to morbidity. According to some this is the film of the year. Are times that bad? The main monster suffers from logic, wrote one critic. You can't say that for the film. The Coens have reached their Woody Allan moment: the funny films were better.
Even admirers acknowledge No Country comes to a head-scratching end. It has all the snap of a busted cap-pistol.