November 21, 2007

No Country for Old Men / Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Whaddya mean this ain't "Man of the House 2"?


No Country for Old Men
Grade: B +
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Woody Harrelson, and Kelly Macdonald
Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hour, 2 minutes

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Grade: B +
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, and Marisa Tomei
Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hour, 57 minutes

For all their well-deserved acclaim, Joel and Ethan Coen have not made a great film since 1996’s Fargo (or a particularly good one since 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There). On the one hand, No Country for Old Men marks a return to form for the filmmaking duo – it is most reminiscent of their very first feature film, the noir crime drama Blood Simple. And, although this is the first Coens’ movie adapted from another source – Cormac McCarthy’s best-selling novel of the same name – the central plot, as in virtually all their films, revolves around the corrosive effects of money and greed.

Yet, this is the most plaintive, melancholy film to date from the Coens, now in their fifties. The novel/film’s title comes from the first line of Yeats' Sailing to Byzantium, which describes an old man’s metaphorical journey to achieve some manner of peace and immortality. The old man here is Tommy Lee Jones’ Ed Tom Bell, an aging sheriff along the Tex-Mex border. Approaching inevitable retirement, Bell is thrust into the middle of a morass of mayhem and violence after a local hunter, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), stumbles across $2 million in drug money. Tracking the cash, and with it Moss and anyone else in its wake, is a psychopathic killer named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Armed with a ‘70s mop-top and a cattle gun, Chigurh is the portrait of pure evil; his motives are neither greed nor revenge, but instead a vaguely gruesome set of “principals” (in the words of a fellow-contract killer played by Woody Harrelson).

Brolin is an atypical Coens’ foil in that, for a while, he proves himself shrewd and adept in his cat-and-mouse game with Chigurh. But, he remains the mouse all the while, and, like all Coens’ protags, at every turn he chooses money over his safety and that of his loved ones.

However, while excellent, No Country for Old Men is not the masterpiece some have advertised. Many of the Coens' trademark quirks that are pleasantly eclectic in their traditional black comedy stomping grounds look a bit divorced from reality here as the tone shifts to a more dramatic tableau. The blemishes and blind-spots you might otherwise overlook become more conspicuous.

That being said, the film is a triumph of craft and atmosphere, led by Roger Deakins' cinematography and the Coens’ exquisite ability to ratchet up and maintain tension throughout. Nearly all the performances are first-rate, including Brolin, Kelly Macdonald as Moss’ suffering wife, and especially Bardem and Jones, both of whom give awards-caliber turns. No Country for Old Men is less convincing as a social screed than as a filmmaking object lesson. No matter – it is still captivating and memorable.

In the realm of cinematic comebacks, however, the Coens’ latest has nothing on Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and 83-year-old director Sidney Lumet, who once churned out classics like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Verdict. Not so much lately, however, which makes this taut, gritty, nihilistic thriller all the more surprising and provocative. Two brothers, Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman, remarkable) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) conspire to rob their parents’ jewelry store. When unexpected tragedy strikes in the process, the two find themselves scrambling to evade fate and their inner demons.

Part crime caper, part Greek tragedy, Before the Devil finds its true verve in dissecting the modern-day gender divide and outmoded notions of masculinity. It begins with an opening scene depicting a decidedly unattractive Andy gazing longingly into a mirror whilst engaged in an exotic bit of coitus with his decidedly attractive wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei). For Gina, the experience is about rejuvenating their relationship; for Andy, it is selfish and self-indulgent.

As the plot unfurls, we learn that the brothers’ choice to hold up their parents’ store is partly based on their belief that an old woman will be minding the shop; instead, the result is an indirect form of matricide. The feckless Hank’s need for money stems first from unpaid child support to the mother of his own child (the ubiquitous Amy Ryan), then later to support the widow and child of a criminal cohort. Hank is constantly referred to by both Andy and his father (Albert Finney) as a “girl” or other more pejorative feminine terms. Gina, by all accounts a smart, savvy, beautiful woman, finds herself embroiled in dependent relationships with both Andy and Hank, the latter a sexual reliance and the former a financial one – when she finally decides to leave Andy, she has to borrow the cab fare in order to do so. When the brothers decide to rip off Andy’s longtime drug dealer, Andy not only guns down his foppish pusher but also, in an act of suicide by proxy, a prone junkie getting his fix in the same spot the pathetic Andy had frequented many times.

The overwrought final act jumps the rails a bit, but the events depicted are necessary to fully realize the film’s Greek tragic underpinning. In it, an old man gets revenge and satisfaction, just like an octogenarian director showing he still has a few tricks up his sleeve.

Neil Morris

2 comments:

Gordon Anderson said...

Neil, while I agree with most of what you said about "No Country..." I have to take issue with a lot of what's in the first paragraph.

You wrote (emphasis mine):

For all their well-deserved acclaim, Joel and Ethan Coen have not made a great film since 1996’s Fargo (or a particularly good one since 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There). On the one hand, No Country for Old Men marks a return to form for the filmmaking duo – it is most reminiscent of their very first feature film, the noir crime drama Blood Simple. And, although this is the first Coens’ movie adapted from another source – Cormac McCarthy’s best-selling novel of the same name – the central plot, as in virtually all their films, revolves around the corrosive effects of money and greed.

First, I'd argue that "The Big Lebowski" is a great film. Too often, I think people are reluctant to tag comedy films with the term great, but "Lebowski" fits that bill. Every performance in that movie is perfect.

Additionally, I'd argue that "The Ladykillers" and "Intolerable Cruelty," while not great, are more than "particularly good." Both of those movies are exercises in some of the best dialogue writing I've seen this decade. That sort of thing just doesn't happen.

That leads me to my last point (and it's a minor quibble, I know), that you wrote "No Country..." is the first Coen movie adapted from another source. "The Ladykillers," "Intolerable Cruelty" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" are each based, directly or indirectly on previous works. In terms of literal, novel-to-movie adaptations, maybe it's correct to say that "No Country..." is the Coens' first, but it's a bit misleading to suggest that they've never used previously established stories as their framework. In fact, with "The Man Who Wasn't There" being the last movie they really, completely wrote themselves, the trend for them this decade seems to be adaptating others' work for the big screen.

Anyway, sorry for the essay. I enjoy your reviews. Keep up the good work.

Allison said...

Hey Neil,

I think this movie is about the combination of chance and choice.

What did you think about the two dreams at the end and how they related to the opening monologue?

I should be studying for secured transactions right now, but alas.

Allison