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November 9, 2007

The Trick

The Coens see themselves in No Country For Old Men. But can they survive?

Country tis of thee: (L-R) Ethan and Joel Coen on the set of No Country For Old Men (Photos: Miramax Films)

We can talk all day about wizardry, witchcraft and the like, but in the end, Joel and Ethan Coen only have one trick -- an exceedingly well-practiced if solitary bit of legerdemain connecting the dry, distilled artifice of their 23 years of work. It's as ennobling as it is unnerving, as dispiriting as it is sublime. Their latest film, No Country For Old Men, gives it away with all the grace of an ultimatum: There is no trick.

I probably knew before now, really. What I assumed was the benefit of the doubt that accompanied repeated viewings of Miller's Crossing and The Man Who Wasn't There and initial, dreaded viewings of The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty was probably something closer to denial. To some degree, hype assuaged all that: If not the return to form of their twin benchmarks Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, I imagined at least a keen harmony between the Coens' physical cinema and source novelist Cormac McCarthy's primordial fatalism. In their adaptation of the story of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a trailer-park Texan on the run from bloodthirsty bounty hunter Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) with $2 million of found drug money, the brothers possessed the potential to turn the page on a bloodless era during which new Joel and Ethan Coen releases were trumpeted as "From the Makers of Fargo and The Big Lebowski" -- marketing department jive, sure, but also symbolic nods at (if not quite restorations of) their once and future relevance.

But that was then, in the buzzing weeks and months leading up to today's theatrical release. A near-unilateral Cannes and Toronto favorite, the New York Film Festival chose No Country as its centerpiece presentation. In direct contrast to that of the Coens' controversial 1990 NYFF opener Miller's Crossing, No Country's reputation for sincere, violent economy preceded it, even sold it. Viewers were warned against taking the phenomenon too seriously, though; in an excellent profile prior to the festival, New York Magazine's David Edelstein noted how "(w)riting about the Coens -- and mining their oeuvre for Big Ideas -- is a sure way of looking like an ass."

Moreover, consider the overindulgence of mythology on behalf of films like The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou? -- the smoky, self-confident languor, or mass culture's condescending, Grammy-approved bluegrass awakening. Consider the investment that critics have in two decades' worth of veneration and the brothers' mounting investment in their own ambivalence. "The Coens take found objects and arrange them for maximum disjunction," Edelstein added. No more, no less.

He's on to something. What if, alas, we cannot rely on ideas as the organic "found objects" of Edelstein's thesis, leaving only inventory recycled from the Coens' previous work? No Country's indisputable technical mastery -- cinematographer Roger Deakins' texture of dust, space and blood, or the Coens' own editing of their laconic predator/prey set pieces, or Bardem's lurching, instantly iconic murderer -- refines derivativeness to the point of enunciation. "Big Ideas" may elude viewers, but the Little Themes are all there: average men criminally out of their depths (Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, The Ladykillers); the influence of extreme landscape on character (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo, O Brother); and unassuming explorations of era (Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Miller's Crossing) and class (Raising Arizona, O Brother, Intolerable Cruelty).

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So the Coens have interests, maybe a prevailing tone. What's the problem? In the kindred spirituality of McCarthy's novel, the little things add up, and their first adaptation yields a profound vacuum of imagination. They've literally visualized themselves in his prose -- from Blood Simple's asphalt-level camera screaming down highways in the dark to the same film's symbolic futility of light coursing through bullet holes to entire set-ups lifted from Raising Arizona. They hover above a sleepless Moss and his wife in bed, tracking left to a close-up of a blank expression concealing the moral volley evinced 20 years ago by hapless kidnapper H.I. McDunnough. Chigurh and his pressurized airtank of death stand silhouetted in the broken-open door frame of the Mosses' abandoned trailer, the same spot that equally spectral bounty hunter Leonard Smalls loomed on his Harley Davidson in his search for Nathan Arizona Jr. On the run from Chigurh, an armed Moss carjacks a pick-up truck -- McDunnough's own evasion tactic in Arizona's epic second-act chase sequence. Chigurh's mercenary foil Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), commandeering a seat in the tastelessly appointed office of his employer, drawls insolently, "You strike me as a man who wouldn't want to waste a chair." It's the analog to Smalls leaving his boots on the outraged Arizona père's desk: "My friends call me Lenny, but I've got no friends."

Except for one thing: The stakes. The Coens have more than two decades between themselves and those original screenplays, and for all their consistencies over the years, they've never had such a grave, flawless prism through which they can cast their stock tropes. And while they're faithful to their source, their capitalization overwhelms its dynamics. Kicking McDunnough's ass is merely a freebie for Smalls, for example, but Chigurh's compulsion to kill supersedes his mission to find. The pick-up driver snagged in the absurdity of McDunnough's flight ("Son, you got a panty on your head") doesn't have the luxury of a response in No Country; his demise graphically punctuates the Coens' self-reference. Newly retired sheriff Ed Tom Bell ends No Country with a twist on McDunnough's dream that concludes Arizona -- a monologue invoking anonymous fatherhood and "older times" as opposed to anonymous fatherhood and McDunnough's hope for the future.

Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Bell

I inquired with the Coens about this during the New York Film Festival, and as Edelstein promised, the joke was ostensibly on me. "We're not conscious of it," Ethan Coen replied when asked if the parallels between No Country and their earlier work attracted, challenged or maybe even intimidated them. "And to the extent that we are, we try to avoid it," he continued, rubbing his beard. "I don't know. What would they be?"

I had my list, even longer than that above; among them was No Country's provincial philosopher sheriff closely echoing Fargo's provincial philosopher police chief Marge Gunderson. Ethan Coen cut me off. "I guess, but those are kind of broad," he said. "Actually, the similarity to Fargo did kind of occur to us -- not that it was a good or a bad thing. The fact that there's a lawman who shows up a third of the way into the movie strikes you in a narrative sense. But nothing comes to mind that struck us as being reminiscent of our own movies. To the extent that it is reminiscent, it's kind of by accident. Obviously it's Cormac's story -- it didn't originate with us."

Yet just as obviously it did -- perhaps to No Country's detriment in the long run. Of course it's a terrific entertainment, exquisitely acted and expertly crafted, recommendable on any terms. But as inarguably inbred work, it functions as a milestone of atavism from which the Coens will either have to recover or dispatch another quarter-century of rehash. The film succeeds today precisely because of its potential to rattle the Coens out of their own system.

Or, as Bell says in the film's desolate introduction: "I don't want to go out there and meet something I don't understand." By the end he's done exactly that -- and walked away from even himself. To paraphrase McCarthy, if that's not a trick, it'll do until the trick gets here.



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