No Country for Old Men and the Delayed Random Ten

Didn't get around to blogging yesterday-- instead, I went to campus briefly, then went to the movies, then read for a while. I felt like I could use a day to just relax, and by golly, that's what I did.

Anyway, as you can tell from the title of this post, the movie Emily and I chose to watch yesterday was the much-hyped Coen Brothers film No Country for Old Men. Does it live up to the hype? I suppose that's for us all to decide for ourselves, but I found that it easily exceeded my expectations, which were pretty high, I must say. Emily had lower expectations, but walked out of the movie tentatively saying, "I think that might be the best movie of the Coen Brothers' career," which is hardly faint praise-- although it should be noted that she hasn't seen Miller's Crossing or Blood Simple. Or The Ladykillers-- but that one generally isn't considered in the running for "best movie of the Coen Brothers' career."

I don't want to give too much away, but I wanted to point out a few things about the film that make it so successful. I'll try to be as vague as I can be, but if you still haven't seen it and still want to avoid any and all details about the plot, you might want to just skip the next few paragraphs and go straight to the Random Ten that should have been posted yesterday.

Okay. Still with me? Good.

First of all, the movie's just beautiful to look at in some places. The Texas landscape is breathtaking, but so are the shots of the various towns that the characters wander through. The movie takes place in 1980, and it shows-- there's a certain dated character to all of the buildings, vehicles, and characters who wander into the camera's view. It's subtle, though-- it looks enough like the world most of have lived in that it takes a moment to note the rotary phones, the wood paneling, the ash trays in the restaurants, and the other details that indicate to us that this action all occured before most of our students were born.

(One slight error, though-- the motel one of the characters-- Moss-- stays in advertises on its sign "Free HBO" when, I think, it should read either "Free Cable" or "Color TV." While HBO existed in 1980, it wasn't a particularly popular channel-- it didn't even produce content 24 hours a day, seven days a week until 1981).

Some people have expressed concerns about the violence in the movie-- particularly, it's been suggested that even while it's a smart film, No Country for Old Men revels in the kind of "What a man's got to do" violence of less intelligent films-- sure, the acting's good and the cinematography's breathtaking, but in the end (some have argued), the movie provides the same type of violent thrills ("carnage as entertainment") as, say, Rambo or Kill Bill (which I realized wasn't about "what a man's got to do," but was still mostly about fulfilling adolescent male fantasies about violence and sex). Frankly, I think that criticism misses the point entirely.

In a Tarantino film, the violence is the point (and often the source for humor); you don't watch Mr. Black carve off the cop's ear for any reason other than to revel is the depraved brutality of it all. Conversely, In a Coen Brother's movie, the violence flows naturally and inevitably from the flawed characters' mistakes in judgment, all in an attempt to illustrate the film's larger point that transcends the violence.

So what is the larger point? Well, in many ways, it's the same point that's made-- in one way or another-- in all of the Coen Brothers' movies. That's not to say that I think they ever repeat themselves, but they use different characters in different situations (and often in different time periods), usually to explore some aspect of one essential truth, which is that the pursuit of money and material goods is dehumanizing to the point that human beings will become brutal creatures, capable of doing anything to each other, once they're tempted by the life that they think they deserve.

As I said, we see this idea in almost all of the Coen brothers movies, from the somber and dark (Blood Simple, The Man Who Wasn't There), to the more light-hearted (The Big Lebowski, Intolerable Cruelty). The "villains" in a Coen Brothers movie are always the people who seem convinced that they are superior to other people, that they deserve material comfort even if it means causing other people to suffer (consider the Mink in Miller's Crossing, Jeffrey Lebowski in The Big Lebowski, or Lundegaard in Fargo); by contrast, the "Coen Hero" is typically someone who is comfortable in his or her own skin, harbors no illusions about him or herself, and is content to work for whatever money he or she has (which usually isn't very much, with no allusions that there will be any luxury in the future) -- Marge Gunderson from Fargo and Tom Reagan from Miller's Crossing are excellent examples of this type of character (as is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in the most recent film); the quintessential Coen Hero, of course, is the Dude from The Big Lebowski-- a character who only stumbles into trouble when he's half-heartedly pushed into standing up for himself and asking for restitution after being wronged. While the Dude doesn't have the work ethic of Gunderson or Reagan, he also doesn't seem to have any use for money whatsoever, so it balances out.

Anyway. The point is that the Coen Brothers are, in many ways, the most Marxist of American filmmakers; power doesn't corrupt, money-- and the selfish pursuit of wealth-- does. The worlds created by the Coen Brothers are Edens spoiled only by the introduction of money-- a point made beautifully towards the end of No Country for Old Men, which I won't give away here. Just be on the lookout for the scene where the two boys help the murderous Chigurgh mend his broken arm towards the end of the film; what starts out as a nice scene of innocent selflessness becomes something subtly haunting the moment Chigurgh produces a $100 bill to thank one of the boys for his troubles.

So is the violence brutal? Yeah, but it's all in service to a larger theme, a theme that implicitly argues a pacifist's humanitarian argument against the inevitable bloodshed when man exploits and abuses his fellow man in order to increase his own wealth. There's nothing particularly "exciting" about the violence in this movie-- it's just scary and sickening and kinda sad. Especially considering the fates of Chigurgh and Moss.

And that brings us to the big one-- the ending that so many online reviewers have been ripping to shreds. Again, not to give too much away, but there's a moment in the movie when what feels like an important plot development happens offscreen-- you'll know it when you see it. The movie leads us to believe that it's headed one way, then fakes left and goes in a completely different direction. In a less thoughtful movie, this would feel like cheating. But it's not. In fact, it's not until this moment that we really start to understand what this movie's about-- it's not the tense and violent cat-and-mouse story of pursuit that we thought it was; it's something different. Something better. Again, I won't give away all my thoughts here-- maybe in the comments section, if people want to discuss the film. Or another time altogether, when I'm confident that everyone (particularly my co-bloggers, who I'm afraid I almost ruined Battlestar Galactica: Razor for) who's going to has seen the film. But people on sites like Ain't It Cool News have been bitching about the ending, despite the fact that-- as far as I'm concerned-- the ending is what makes the entire movie. Without this shift, this would be just another (admittedly well-made) stories of violent retribution and the animal brutality that exists in men's souls (yawn). But the ending of the movie (and, presumably, the novel it's based on-- I haven't read it) elevates it, and turns it into a more thoughtful meditation on not only violence, but also human motivation, mortality, history, change, and the tired myth of a golden age when people somehow treated each other better-- as this movie points out, as long as we've had money, we've had violence. This may be No Country for Old Men, but it's not because the country has changed from the one they've grown up in; in their old age, they've just lost their ability to cope with this country they've always lived in.

Four stars. Five stars. Whatever the highest number of stars is.

One thing I will caution you about, though, is going to see the movie in South Florida. Frankly, I think Emily and I found ourselves surrounded by a bunch of senior citizens who found themselves attracted to the title-- I suspect they actually though they were going to see a movie about a group of retirees who go to dinner at the Old Country Buffet every Friday night at 4:30 to talk about how disrepectful these whippersnappers with their low-hanging jeans and "rap-n-roll" music are. Hence, we were surrounded by people who kept explaining to each other, loudly, what was going on-- and they were almost always wrong, from the very beginning, when Josh Brolin first came on the screen and the old lady in front of us said, "Oh, it's James Brolin! I haven't seen him in a while!" Uh... yeah. And then there came the periodic predictions from behind us: "He ought to just get rid of the money-- it's not worth his life!" Well... we wouldn't have much of a movie he did that, would we? But the best was during the most tense scene in the movie, as Moss sits on his bed in the motel room, knowing that Chigurgh is coming for him, will be there in just a moment. The sound, the lighting... all of it builds the tension to the point where I was literally cringing in anticipation. But then grandma behind me actually says-- not whispers, just says, in her normal conversational voice-- "I'm scared! This is a scaaaaary movie!" At which point, I have to admit, Emily and I both cracked up.

Anyway. Here's yesterday's Random Ten. What you do is, put your music player on shuffle, wait a day, then come back and record what you got.

1) Archers of Loaf-- "Wrong"
2) Pink Floyd-- "Another Brick in the Wall" (Part 2)
3) Isaac Hayes-- "Theme from Shaft"
4) Kanye West-- "Touch the Sky"
5) Nick Lowe-- "I'm a Mess"
6) Chrissie Hynde-- "I Shall Be Released"
7) Electric Six-- "Dance Commander"
8) Culture Club-- "Karma Chameleon"
9) Regina Spektor-- "Field Below"
10) Air Supply-- "All Out of Love"

"I wish I could carry your smile in my heart
For times when my life seems so low
It would make me believe what tomorrow could bring
When today doesn't really know, doesn't really know"

That's Emily' favorite song, you know.

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