Sunday, 9 December 2007

American Myth: The Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men [pt. 1]

Following the trail of blood left by his wounded quarry, Llewellyn Moss, an amateur antelope hunter, comes upon the aftermath of a failed drug deal: bullet-riddled trucks, dead and dying bodies and—that faithful MacGuffin—a case full of money. It will not be long before the trail being followed is left by Moss himself. This image of a trail of blood recurs again and again throughout No Country For Old Men, the latest film by Joel and Ethan Coen, adapted from a novel by Cormac McCarthy. Overuse by so many clich├ęd Hollywood movies has devalued the idea of ‘the hunter becoming the hunted,’ but it reclaims its poignant irony in this film, if only because the hunter in question so stubbornly refuses to accept his new role. Moss (Josh Brolin) is constantly devising new ploys to gain the upper hand over his adversary, the chilling killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). In the average American movie, his self-confident tenacity would stand as testament to his heroism, even if it proved his undoing (think Cool Hand Luke); but the Coens deny him his moment of glory, robbing him of his iconic last stand. It is an unusual decision in a thriller, particularly such a tangibly American one; but for the Coens, any other course would be unthinkable.

No Country For Old Men is the Coen brothers’ first film in three years, but it is their first in six years to display the quality that distinguishes their best work. Following the excellent Man Who Wasn’t There, the pair seemed to lose their way with a pair of comedies, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, each one disappointing in different ways. The first appears to be an attempt at a pure, uninflected comedy, but it lacks the wit and originality of their earlier work; while the second is a highly analytical disquisition on death and spirituality, enacted by a bunch of unappealing stereotypes. No Country falls into neither of these traps; it is a taut, suspenseful thriller that atypically slackens, slows and fades into a melancholy diminuendo at the finish. It is incredible, considering the film is an adaptation, that it harmonises so closely with the brothers’ other films; so much so, in fact, that it seems like a blend of Raising Arizona and Fargo, the chilling killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) taking the place of demon biker Leonard Smalls from the former and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), the emotional heart of the film, taking the place of Police Chief Marge Gunderson from the latter. As in Fargo, the detective figure does not appear until quite some time into the film; in this case, even after his first appearance it is some considerable time before he is required to take much narrative weight. In the meantime we follow Moss (Josh Brolin), whose relative anonymity and lack of obvious charm seem to render him all the more vulnerable to the forces of darkness that quickly surround him.

The Coens have always shown a great sensitivity for the natural poetry of non-standard English, and No Country’s dialogue is characteristically colourful, as in this monologue by Sheriff Bell:
Well you know how they used to slaughter beeves; hit 'em with a maul right here to stun 'em, and then truss 'em up and slit their throats? Well here Charlie has one trussed up and all set to drain him and the beef comes to. It starts thrashing around, six hundred pounds of very pissed-off livestock if you'll pardon me...Charlie grabs his gun there to shoot the damn thing in the head but what with the swingin and twistin it's a glance-shot and ricochets around and comes back hits Charlie in the shoulder. You go see Charlie, he still can't reach up with his right hand for his hat... Point bein, even in the contest between man and steer the issue is not certain.
What stands out immediately is the vocabulary, particularly the pungent ‘beeves’ (does anyone in Texas really say ‘beeves?’). But the metre of the passage is no less impressive; in fact, it could almost be blank verse. The sinuous, paratactic rhythms of the story, set to a quick time by the sheriff’s compound phrases, reach the perfect conclusion in the regular iambs of his final ‘point.’

The use of narrative detail is similarly subtle. Considering that the Coen brothers came to prominence in the same generation that saw the rise of Quentin Tarantino and legions of other ‘indie’ filmmakers raised on Martin Scorsese, the subtlety of their storytelling, impressive at any time, among their contemporaries is almost unique. This is particularly noticeable in relation to the use of violence; many of their films are graphically violent, but never gratuitously so, and they seem always sensitive to the effect of screen violence on the audience. For example, once the fact of Chigurh’s violence has been established by several graphic killings, its representation on screen is constantly diminished, abstracted, iconicised; until by the end of the film it is enough to see him check the soles of his boots. As one would expect from the Coen brothers (and from their regular cinematographer, Roger Deakins), No Country is a film of quietly consistent visual beauty. Their images combine compositional elegance with precise narrative focus, always managing to avoid mere picture-postcard prettiness. For example, the image of Moss’ truck on the brow of a hill, silhouetted by the night sky, has a real iconic beauty; but it is also a beautifully economical narrative device. Moss looks up at the hill—one truck: good. Soon after, Moss looks again—two trucks: bad. The simplicity of the image makes the appearance of the second truck hit the viewer with the same force that strikes the prone and fearful protagonist.

Unfortunately, this technical skill for which the Coens are rightfully renowned has come to be seen by many as their only virtue. The position of the Coen brothers in the culture of American cinema has always been somewhat uncertain: too modest for the avant-garde but too ‘weird’ for the mainstream, they can never entirely count on either side to defend them. Their films are always related to one strain or another of traditional Hollywood genres, but their films invariably contain an undertone of parody, an allusive, knowing distance that has lead many critics to dismiss them as superficial stylists. For example, Vincent Canby in the New York Times denounced Miller’s Crossing as ‘a movie of random effects and little accumulative impact,’ while Kevin Jackson in Sight and Sound described O Brother, Where Art Thou? as ‘an encyclopaedic ragbag’ of references, implying that their combination is based on little more than the filmmakers’ caprice. But as I hope to demonstrate, there is a depth, both thematic and aesthetic, to even their most apparently frivolous work that displays a profound understanding of the great and overlooked aesthetic power of pulp fiction.

[Part Two.]

2 comments:

Notabene said...

Speaking of the hunter becoming the hunted: you may, if you haven't already, want to read Robin Robertson's translation of Book III of Ovid's Metamorphoses. The two central poems in his book Swithering refer to the figure of Actaeon, who is turned into a stag after he unwittingly discovers the goddess Diana bathing. He is then hunted down and killed by his own hounds.

I think Robertson is the best poet writing in the English language today.

Stephen Crowe said...

That's a great connection: not only had I not thought of it, but it ties in directly with my essay (finally finished), which relates the use of archetypal characters in myth with that in genre fiction.

The Metamorphoses is an interesting example of mythic archetypes: Ovid is basically replaying and contrasting a relatively small number of stories, don't you think? Actaeon's story, for example, echoes the story of Lycaon in Book I and when Pentheus is killed he invokes Actaeon's name.

I'm not familiar with Robertson; I shall have to take a look at that translation.