Sunday, November 18, 2007

Maybe I'm Getting Soft

The softness I speak of is my growing inability to laugh off nihilistic violence in movies that claim to offer something more than a genre film. A lot of people are singing the praises of No Country For Old Men. I, too, have some high opinions of the film, but I take issue with comments such as "indisputably great". Foremost on my mind is the fact that I found little humor or wit in the film as I thought I might based on the interview with the Coens I listened to yesterday. There was a time that I laughed at wicked violence in films. Often it was a lone laugh in a crowded theater such as the scene in the Scorcese Cape Fear remake where Robert DeNiro bites off Illeana Douglas's cheek. Or the ear scene in Reservoir Dogs. I even went as Mr. Blonde for Halloween that year, carrying a blood stained rubber ear that I took out of my pocket to talk to during the course of the night. But in the dark of the theater last night I found myself shuddering at the moment of impact most of the time things got violent. The Coen Brothers are good at letting you know just about exactly what's coming yet somehow they add a distinctly quiet suspense to it and then they hit you with what you saw coming all along. Bam! It's visceral.
I admire the quiet in this film. It's part of what makes those suspenseful moments work so well. Hardly any music. No goofy sound design. Technically, this film is a formalist's wet dream. The photography, the editing, the sound design and the production design, including wardrobe and squib effects and especially Bardem's hair, are all brilliant. Overall the writing is excellent but there are some crucial gaps regarding the money. Maybe. They may be gaps or they may underscore my suspicion that the gaps are meant to let us know that what we think this film is about isn't what it's about. I'll get to that later. Another thing that might be minor, but no error however small seems minor in a film as well-crafted as this one. Anyway there's a reference that's anachronistic to the period of the film that happens in the third act that I can't ignore.
I also admire the acting a lot. Javier Bardem is someone else -- he's just out there in a way that we don't need too talk much about. Josh Brolin is a movie star. I love that guy. He was by far the best thing in American Gangster. And I wanted to be with him every second in No Country, even though he wouldn't really let us get close to him. Even Tommy Lee Jones manages to not be so Tommy Lee Jones, though I think the film would be better if someone else played his role. I won't spoil anything, but when he's sitting at the kitchen table late in the movie I recommend listening closely. You have to because what he says might be the key to what this movie is about. As I've said, what you think it's about turns out to not be what it's about. I can't rightly say with any certainty because I didn't listen closely to Tommy. I've learned over the years to throw his lines away, because he never does. (An aside to Tommy Lee Jones: Mr. Jones, I know you probably don't give a rat's ass what a nobody like me has to say and your five million or so you banked off of this film is more money than I'm likely to see in my lifetime, but I'll say it anyway: sometimes it's what isn't said in a film that speaks the loudest.) That's the reason I think he was miscast. And it's part of the reason that I think this very good film isn't a great film. I'd like to see it again. I have a feeling or maybe just a fond hope the Coen's knew exactly what they were doing, but I can't help but doubt it just a little. It's the anachronistic bit about green hair and bones in noses I mentioned earlier that undoes their credibility. Because as the film suddenly shifts to a decidedly more literary telling in the third act I need things to be as tight as a drum for it to work. My ear says that drum needs some tuning. Then again nobody ever accused me of having perfect pitch.

Cantando nella nerezza,
Signore Direttore

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