24 November 2007

Review: No Country for Old Men

Genre: Drama / Thriller

Many critics have taken to gushing lately over the Coen brothers' newest piece, the dry and placid thriller-Western lodged somewhat sardonically between the lenses of the camera and the lenses of our eyes, and, indeed, much of the appraisal has been merited, especially in the case of of Mr. Bardem's performance. However, there were, to my mind, too many odd clippings and too many solely mise-en-scene threads, for the film to construct as clean or as tight a story or argument as that which all the glowing reviews describe. No Country for Men may be certainly a great gesture in the world of filmmaking for the Coens, but it is not a miraculous heraldry for the world at large.
Primarily, I take issue with the unwaveringly fawning compliments given for Mr. Deakins' cinematography. Now, it is true that Mr. Deakins is an extremely experienced and acclaimed (not undeservedly so) director of photography and it is true that he in this latest effort accomplished some marvellous scenes and sequences, adding depth and feeling and strength to the story and to the action on screen; but it is not the case that his execution of the whole of this his latest effort was solidly impeccable. More than once did he awkwardly cut off already incomplete objects or parts of his actors' bodies, namely their feet, and his extreme distance at other instances pushed the audience too far away from the action and points of focus, to make clear interpretations of them, despite even the largest of theatrical formats. In addition, his muddled stance on perspective tended to dilute the thetical point of the film, quavering from its intended position as a reasoning, objective observer into the untenable realms of intersubjectivity and human probability. While powerful sequences such as that of the primary coin toss with the gas station owner and that of the car-collision finale resonated strongly for their almost painfully indifferent points of view as third-person observers, other sequences like that of the tense awaiting of Mr. Bardem's character in the hotel resonated strongly for their adaptation of the completely opposite standpoint, as an often first-person actor. Yet, I suppose, while such contrasting modes of work in the same film did lead to conflicture in overall argument, it is nevertheless meritorious that they, however contrasting, did still both resonate strongly emotionally or psychologically. Powerful imagery does make a powerful impression - I only wished it had also been a coherent one.
Secondarily, I take issue with the film's screenplay, which has also basked in its fair share of fawned glory. Though it too, like the cinematography, did eke out some premier moments, it was unfortunately less forthcoming on the general splendor or power, for No Country for Old Men did not seem to me to make any sort of palpable or consistent point or argument more than the tired reconstitution of "Greed can wear a man, breeding itself into his children, and, while good men can stand against it, none can truly overcome it but only bear its recognition in one's heart and try to kindle the same in others." OK, so worded in that way the topic may not seem to be endlessly popular, but just consider the long history of screenplays that have ridden the same one-trick pony: from It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol all the way to Wall Street, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and even Blank Check. And the history of stories in this vein in general stretches centuries farther: Chaucer anyone? So, why why why should we be immensely captivated by and praising of yet another play to address it, especially as the play in question seeks to explore nothing new about its effects and instead somewhat feebly pushes out meditations about chance, fate, and happenstance? OK, it was succinct and inexiguous, thrifty and efficient, but a journey swiftly made to a middle-of-the-road location is still only a middle-of-the-road excursion. Why should we praise middle-of-the-road? I have no idea. And, furthermore, why should we even consider praising an unfocused, undecided style? The screenplay vacillates continuously in tradition, between full-fledged morality play and straightforward thriller. Its characteristic storylines only half introduced and scenarios abruptly begun and ended strongly align to the morality play's construction, in which background details and other practical issues of the plot are secondary to the execution of the overarching moral. But, its instances of first-person, limited-knowledge narration and its tendencies to closely follow the travails of Mr. Brolin's character strongly suggest a thriller's construction, in which the audience's identification with the protagonist is crucial and the major vehicle for achieving the conclusive point. Because the film must be a cohesive whole and directorial decisions can inform the work (even in retrospect), the emotional ties and aspirations of the film must ultimately side with its being a thriller, but the ambiguities still linger, as a further weakness of the play.
Finally, I just have to take minor issue with hair and make-up. While I, unlike many critics out there, have the greatest respect for the decision to style Mr. Bardem's hair as it was, for that cut to me seemed strangely right - perhaps as incongruous and abstracted as his character himself - I have to ask, why also the monster sideburns? I have no real higher reason for my question nor problem with them being on his character that I can clearly describe; they just felt odd to me.
Anyway, all things considered, No Country for Old Men was a very well done film, and Mr. Bardem's ghostly, almost unpresent performance the capstone of the entire piece; but, to be frank, the film's greatness was pre-capped by the shortcomings of its screenplay.

Grade: B

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