Monday, November 26, 2007

No Country for Old Men

The Coen brothers' admirable new film is oddly transparent: the filmmakers do not wish to obscure the audience's view of the subject matter. Previously, I would have said that a certain reflectivity identified their style. But here we see the same abstraction as always, the same Lang-like transformation of images into ideas, the same quantization of effects - and yet no sense, or almost none, of the filmmakers using abstraction to open a humorous gap between themselves and the drama. (I don't mean to denigrate that humorous distance, which the Coens have exploited well on occasion.)

The film's daring is out in the open: it starts as a Charley Varrick-like, suspenseful conflict between powerful opposing forces, undermines and then destroys the force that most represents the audience, and empties out into a dark plain of irresolution.

As much as I appreciate this bold storytelling gesture, I wonder if it doesn't expose a contradiction in the film's means. Certainly a great deal of the pleasure that the film gives the audience is the joy of being vicariously threatened by an almost omnipotent villain, upon whose predations the film lingers lovingly. It seems clear to me that only part of us feels assaulted by such monsters, that another part of us thrills to their strength, their freedom to destroy. (If the Javier Bardem character were purely a source of suffering for audiences, then No Country's ratio of pain to pleasure would be too steep for most to endure.)

I don't object to this kind of appeal to our atavism: good films can do interesting things with our dark responses, and the Coens do not have an entirely simple attitude toward this psychopath/philosopher. But when No Country obsoleted its action story and left the audience to meditate on the untenability of civilization in the face of pervasive evil, I couldn't help feeling that it was failing to acknowledge how much it had divided our energies.

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