...where distraction is the main attraction.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

This is Our Country

Enough of the contemplative personal stuff. Back to the sexy, sexy cinema.

This was a rental that I was looking forward to for some time. I greeted it with a generous glass of scotch (Glenmorangie's Sherry Barrel). At the end of the first act it was joined with a second smaller glass. About a half hour later I realized that scotch was the wrong drink. This was a Western. I needed American Beer. Luckily I had a 24oz. can of something that I drink not for the flavor.

My expectations were set low. There was the unfortunate Oscar-winner backlash that seems involuntary to many of us each year. Additionally, there's the strange post-Lebowski slump in which the Coen brothers have been mired. I didn't even see their previous two films, such was their decline. Finally No Country is a Western.

I HATE Westerns. Yes, it is the one pure American film genre. But historically they've always embraced with two sunburned arms their racist, ignorant, male stereotypes. Stubborn ignorance is not manly, it is childish. I used to blame Hemmingway alone for screwing up two generations of men. But no more. Now it's Hemmingway and Wayne. John W may have cut an impressive shadow, but he was a cancerous, xenophobic, occasionally anti-Semitic, misogynist whose line delivery was mind-numbing. Think Paris Hilton, without the irony and sex tapes.

Of Westerns that I like, they number four: Once Upon A Time in the West, Good Bad and the Ugly, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Wild Bunch. And of the previous generation of films, I appreciate Red River, Stagecoach, and The Searchers. That's it.

But these concerns of mine were unwarranted. No Country is an excellent film. A Western that works. Arguably the best of the Coen's serious films.

It's sort of an anti-Fargo. Fargo never sat well with me due to the direction of the actors. Their quirky local accents were exploited to make all (except Frances McDormand's) characters appear simple and dopey. The film felt condescending to its characters from start to finish.

No Country does not have this issue. In fact the dialogue is very sparse for a Coen film. The accents feel organic to the characters, locations, and scenes.

Though Tommy Lee Jones could play his Sheriff in his sleep, his delivery of the devastatingly written final monologue defines the film for me. It's still chill-inducing two weeks later. Makes one rethink his character and the plot.

Javy Bardem is Fate as played by Anton Chigur. The character is brutal because there are no answers to the questions behind his actions. The performance is unnerving.

Josh Brolin's performance as Llewelyn Moss is the most surprising. Excellent in the lead, he's a quiet focused force (again, rare for Coen films). Though he is often alone in large empty widescreen sequences, he seems to guide the forward momentum of the story on his own.

But the real star of the show is America. From the barren West Texas plains, to roadside murder motels, to country diners with dollar coffee, to the road, it's as if this country holds the blood of its violence in its hands until it's dried by the sun.

The Coens turn out their most controlled Spartan writing/producing/directing/editing job yet. It feels like the first film of theirs wherein the graphic violence has actual meaning and its consequences understood.

One's opinion of the film probably hinges on two factors, the violence and the editing. Death is around every frame of the film, so if one cannot stomach cinema blood (of men and animals) then one would best not even start this DVD. If one also prefers film endings spelled out with no ambiguity, then again, this ain't the right DVD. Because the film pulls a switcheroo, then ends with a monologue that seemingly has nothing to do with the plot, many viewers have left the movie going, "Huh?"

But I like ambiguity -- even though I think that the Sheriff's monologue has everything to do with the themes and the plot -- and I appreciate meditations on violence (I've tried to write a couple of those, myself). What I appreciate most is that the Coen men have made a Western that I like. And that's no small feat.