Saturday, December 08, 2007

No Country for Old Men (2007)

As requested, here's an entry for the critics' darling that seems like the current front-runner for Best Picture. I've seen it once, a few weeks ago, and liked it quite a bit - it's just about perfect in terms of suspense, performances, cinematography, the dialogue is sharp without being too self-conscious as the Coens have done from time to time, etc.

I don't know what I really think about the ending - I need to see it a second time to make sure. Thematically it certainly makes sense that the movie is bookended by Tommy Lee Jones talking about how he perceives law and order in his corner of the world and how people have changed over time. That said, the abruptness of the climax (or anticlimax if you prefer) is indeed a speed bump, a major seam that may work better in theory and in intellectual terms than in emotional, movie-watching terms. I guess what I'm saying is that it's one thing for the ending to 'make sense' but in addition it's best if the ending also feels proportional and organic to what has come before, integrated seamlessly in Aristotelian terms to the movie as a whole. A truly great film shouldn't need elaborate intellectual justifications to make sense, and I need to verify if No Country for Old Men is a truly great movie or only a very good one.

The other thing I want to talk about is one of my favorite sections of the movie, and one which also serves as the movie in a microcosm - the scene in which Josh Brolin outruns and outswims the dog. I like this a lot because it's suspenseful and it's funny at the same time - a lesser movie would have had the chasing dog be some kind of hellhound, an evil doberman or something that we're meant to be afraid of. The Coens, instead, chose a pit bull, and a pretty friendly-looking one at that - it's a good dog that just happens to have the job of chasing down those people its master deems in need of chasing. The incongruity and the dog's single-minded pursuit gives the chase an extra dimension, and the dog is just doing what it's supposed to do the same way that Anton Chigurh or Llewelyn Moss find themselves programmed into a collision course after their initial actions.

8 comments:

dan said...

thanks jeff. i read rosenbaum's criticism after you mentioned it in the saw review and agree it doesn't apply here - they pretty clearly establish chigurh as 'not man'. without having read anything about silence of the lambs specifically i do think it applies there since hannibal killing clarice would be impolite. shit i can't stay on movie here.

that's a great observation on the dog scene and i had totally forgotten that moment. even as a dog person i wouldn't argue the dog is friendly looking, but as soon as it hits the water it's powerless and it's a pretty sympathetic moment.

i think the bumpiness of the climax is one of my favorite things about no country. that 'hey isn't that...? what the? wha happa?' moment was truly viscerally satisfying, especially with the extended epilogue. god forbid the audience not be allowed to sleepwalk through the 3rd act jeff! just kidding - i see your point but that moment felt very right for me.

Jeff McMahon said...

I think Silence of the Lambs avoids what Rosenbaum was saying about it simply by virtue of the quality of the filmmaking, and because it's not the primary focus of that movie.

The best part of the dog scene is that the Coens allow it to play out in long takes with both the dog and Brolin in the frame, it really accentuates both the suspense and the absurdity.

John said...

"A truly great film shouldn't need elaborate intellectual justifications to make sense."

I don't think this is at all necessarily true. And I think it's the kind of thinking that leads to by-the-numbers 3-act filmmaking.

And I agree with Dan: what you seem to want here, Jeff, is for the film to fulfill its "purpose." You're talking about "proportion" and an Aristotelian wholeness, but it seems pretty clear to me that the Coens here--thinking more rigorously and boldly than they have in a long while, with a lot of help from Cormac McCarthy--feel perfectly fine leaving the audience undernourished, or alternatively nourished. The ending might not satisfy you, but in a movie about profound dissatisfaction, such a structure feels both organic and appropriate. They're being more Aristotelian than you're giving credit for.

And if we're talking about making sense, what doesn't make sense?

Certainly, the crowd I was unfortunate enough to sit with felt no satisfaction by the end; hence the cackles and boos.

But that says more about the state of moviegoing right now than the film's power.

I guess what I'm saying is: you're being narrow. See it again.

Jeff McMahon said...

John (Magary, right?), I never said the ending didn't leave me 'unsatisfied', I said that I don't know if it was as well-integrated into the overall fabric of the film as perhaps it should have been. Or if I didn't say that, it's what I meant. Pablumesque three-act structure has nothing to do with it - 2001 is an abstract, mind-blowing film, but it is from beginning to end and its ending doesn't come as a shock to the audience. Ditto for the last scene from The Sopranos this Spring, which pissed people off because it didn't conform to standard audience expectations, but was perfectly in keeping with the rest of the series for anyone who had actually been paying attention to the series for its run. I do need to see No Country again to confirm that the ending fills that organic nature that I'm talking about, which it may or may not. Don't chide me for doing something I'm planning on doing anyway- I'm raising the question, not making a final statement.

Jeff McMahon said...

Also, John - please name a truly great film that does need elaborate intellectual justifications to make sense, to illustrate your point.

John said...

McMahon, stop using my goddamn last name. I don't want blog posts showing up on Google.

Rosenbaum's review strikes me as one of his laziest. I don't think "No Country For Old Men" is perfect--it's arch and hard to believe, and seems pretty much in love with itself--but what does it have to do with Hannibal Lecter and/or Abu Ghraib? He kind of sidesteps the questions of aesthetic violence, which are much more interesting than far-fetched political points. (Ironically, Funny Games previewed the screening I saw.)

Regarding "elaborate intellectual justifications," nothing we've offered here feels either elaborate or all that intellectual...right? The Coens have always worn their themes on their sleeve, er sleeves. How is their ending "shocking"? The ending of that stupid Richard Gere movie Primal Fear is shocking...the ending of Shyamalan's movies are shocking...not this one. I wasn't taken aback by the ending, or thrown off. Chigurh (evil) walks off, after a brush with his own mortality. Tommy Lee Jones (good) ponders his own mortality, his own dreams...end of film.

I guess I just don't agree with your terms. Art doesn't need justifications of any kind.

But off the top of my head, great films with tough, head-scratching endings: anything by Tarkovsky. There.

Jeff McMahon said...

John, first of all: it's just nice to know who I'm talking to.

Second, I agree about Rosenbaum. He's a really lazy critic when he wants to be.

Next, I don't think the ending of this movie is 'shocking' but it is abrupt, and apparently annoying/frustrating to mainstream audiences, and my point is that maybe the movie needs to do a better job of preparing its audience to be frustrated than it does.

Next: "I guess I just don't agree with your terms. Art doesn't need justifications of any kind."

You're agreeing with me here. My point is that, if one has to provide complicated intellectualized reasons for why the ending of the movie 'works' then that means it doesn't work. It works if it makes emotional and artistic sense, not because a college student can write a thesis about it. That's what I wrote about Redacted: more interesting than good. Tarkovsky works (when he does) because the viewer is actually carried along by the emotional thread of his movies, which function on different level from standard Hollywood narrative practices. Not because you feel emotionally dissatisfied by his movies and think really hard to try and convince yourself after the fact about why his movies are intellectually 'good'.

cjKennedy said...

I'll freely agree that the ending is jarring, but I had no idea it was unsatisfying until I came online and heard people complaining about it.

I was happy with it and its only gotten deeper and more resonant with 2nd and 3rd viewings.

I can't exactly explain it or outline what it all means, but I don't feel like a have to. It is what it is and I'm thrilled by it.