Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Miller's Crossing (1990)/ No Country for Old Men (2007)

I wanted to see No Country again after its Oscar win, but first I decided to revisit the early Coen film that had the least impact on me, Miller's Crossing.

Set amidst of the gang wars of Prohibition, Miller's Crossing is, for me at least, probably the Coens' most impenetrable movie, but that may simply be the result of Gabriel Byrne's Irish brogue combined with the defiantly un-hip '20s slang that every character recites (They could have called this Yeggs: The Movie). And watching the Oscars reminds me that the Coens, like so many of their characters, have severely low-affect personalities, from the laconic H.I. McDunnough of Raising Arizona to the stubborn Llewelyn Moss. It's great when it works, but for me, Byrne's Tom Reagan just isn't interesting or conflicted enough as a character to carry me through the movie, and his arc seems to be muddled. In the film's plot, which is borrowed heavily from Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, Reagan functions as the go-between, the guy who plays both sides against each other, and if his arc is to show him becoming disillusioned by his own actions within the world he lives in, it's not clear to me why a career gangster would be so affected by the specific events of this movie, to turn away from his father figure (Albert Finney) and the woman he may or may not love (Marcia Gay Harden) by the end of the film. It's a handsome movie and well-shot and performed, but it doesn't resonate with me as much as Raising Arizona or Fargo.

On the other hand, the places where Miller's Crossing falls short serve to highlight where No Country for Old Men excels. Where Miller's is stifled by its own production design and old-movie homages (the same factors that basically killed The Ladykillers), No Country is fresh, existing in a fully-realized 'real' world; for the first time in a long time, the Coens are interested in their characters as real people and not as movie archetypes.

The exception to this rule is Anton Chigurh, who's been described as an allegorical 'grim reaper' in plenty of reviews, but the truth is that he's just a mirror image of Tommy Lee Jones' Ed Tom Bell (literalized in two scenes), with Josh Brolin's Llewelyn Moss an in-between version of both men, a silent man of the country corrupted by the intrusion of a crapload of money into believing that he can outwit 'the ultimate badass', and the progress of the movie is the temptation and fall of Moss. It's not that Moss fails in his face-off against Chigurh, it's that he never had a chance in Chigurh's world. At the end of the movie, it's Carla Jean's moral victory that she chooses not to play Chigurh's coin-toss game. For the bulk of the movie, it's Moss's failure that he keeps playing over and over again, like an addicted gambler. Of course, the twist of the movie's ending is that even though Chigurh has beaten all of his human adversaries, the house still holds the ultimate trump card - Chigurh can outsmart a Texas welder, but he can't beat the random whims of the universe.

I recognize that this is somewhat rambling - I'll pick it up again soon.


cjkennedy said...

I love Miller's Crossing so I'll have to disagree with your estimation, though not violently so.

For me, Tom's character arc is as the man who appears to be completely self absorbed, but who is the only man in the film who really has the 'ettics' thrown around by Caspar.

The whole movie he's juggling all of these threads, not for his own self interest, but to basically save Albert Finney without actually killing anyone.

What does he get for his troubles? Frequently beaten and nearly killed more than once. And the result of all his effort is that things at best end up right back where they started, Finney on top, but as hard headed as ever and with a woman who is no good for him. The only thing that has changed is Tom and his perception of the world as a thing he can control.

Jeff McMahon said...

Yeah, I see that the movie is about what you're saying intellectually, Craig, it's just that I don't really feel it in my gut. Aside from blaming myself (was I sleepy when watching it?) I can only think that there's some missing piece of screenwriting or performance that's keeping me from connecting to Byrne's character. For example, unlike classic detectives like Bogart's Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, Tom Reagan never cracks - he's constantly quiet, reserved, stoic to a fault.

cjkennedy said...

You know, sometimes a movie just doesn't hit you where you live. It happens. Other times, it hooks you somehow and you end up buying into it 100%

For me, I'm addicted to the way the Coens write dialogue and Miller's has some of their best. They always seem to key into a regional mode of common speech and turn it into a weird kind of poetry.

The dialogue is the hook of Miller's and it draws me in and gets me to accept whatever else is going on.

And I find something oddly appealing about Tom's implacability, especially considering the beatings he routinely takes. It's weird, but it makes me laugh.

patrick said...

just watched no country for old men, it's unassumingly unconventional yet (thankfully) never over-the-top. the Coen bros. deserve their Oscars; well done indeed.