Sunday, January 13, 2008
No country for old men
I'm probably going out my realm of expertise here, but it's just something I have to try to articulate. The wife and I saw the movie "No Country for Old Men" this past Friday. Now, judging by the nearly unanimous rave reviews the movie has received from expert movie critics, you'd think that this was the second coming of Citizen Kane or the Sistine Chapel or something. Phrases like "work of art", "darkly poetic", "modern masterpiece", "cathartic", and "flawless" can be lifted from literally hundreds of positive reviews. I admit, I was excited to see it. I hadn't read the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, but I enjoyed his latest offering (The Road) quite a bit. When it was over, however, I walked out of the theater feeling completely empty, detached from what I had just witnessed. I wasn't moved. I didn't feel anything. Nothing. It was like going out to a highly recommended restaurant and having them serve a plate of thin air. A strange sensation to have after watching, ostensibly, "one of the great American movies of the decade", indeed. And that bothered me. Why was I feeling nothing when the rest of the country was apparently swept up in rapturous delight?
Was it a bad movie? No. It was actually entertaining and extremely well made. The acting was top notch. Javier Bardem just nails the role of the remorseless sociopath. Nails it. But when the credits rolled, I stood up and left without a pause. Within 2 minutes my wife and I moved on to other conversational topics. Isn't a "work of art", a "masterpiece" supposed to ingrain itself into your psyche just a wee bit longer? What was my problem? I liked the movie; don't get me wrong. The scene where Bardem makes a poor gas station clerk call heads or tails to determine whether or not he lives is a masterful combination of humor and horror. I just don't get why critics are falling over themselves with praise and adoration, as if the Coen brothers have contributed to the aggrandizement of the collective human mind.
For one thing, I think there's an important distinction between "technical excellence" and "art". No Country for Old Men is certainly flawless in its construction. The scenes are taut and steely. The dialogue crackles. The characters are developed with a minimum of exposition. The cinematography is occasionally breathtaking. No denying the superiority of the film in these regards. But is it art? Did it force me to look deep within, to acknowledge a truth that perhaps I hadn't realized? Was there a hidden human beauty, carefully delineated, that became steadily more manifest as the film reached its conclusion? What edifying idea was transmitted?
The film is about a bizarrely hilarious psychopath, Anton Chigurh, who spends the bulk of his time on screen mercilessly gunning down innocents with a compressed air gun, usually used to subdue cattle prior to slaughter. Chigurh's inexorable, inevitable killing rampage is conducted on a barren, craggy south Texas landscape almost completely devoid of anything soft or gentle. Tommy Lee Jones as the aged lawman with lines in his face like a dry, cracked riverbed, can only follow the carnage, always showing up a little late, helpless to stop it. Josh Brolin is the everyman, suddenly thrust into the crosshairs, who decides to challenge the ineluctability of his own death, unable to overcome the temptation of easy money. In the end, evil triumphs. The last twenty minutes elapse quickly in retrospect. The violence, so meticulously portrayed in all its gory detail in the frst half of the film, is elided at the end, the Coen brothers leaving to our imagination the senseless concluding butchery. I suppose that was nice of them.
We like our violence in America, I get that. We also love our psychopaths. But just because talented filmmakers are able to package that recipe into a well-made movie, that doesn't necessarily mean that ripples have been made in the river of historical aesthetics. Maybe I'm a little biased, given what I do for a living, but I see plenty of suffering and needless pain almost every day. It's very clear that the 45 year old woman with stage IV breast cancer didn't do anything to deserve her plight. Or the guy who comes in with perforated diverticulitis. Or the elderly lady with a massive myocardial infarction. I don't need to watch a goofy looking sadist leave a trail of horror for two hours to illustrate the vicissitudes and randomness of the human condition. Most of the beauty of art isn't in the actual work itself, but rather in the discussion and soul searching and enlightenment that the work of art triggers in each individual and the subsequent sharing of such insight. It's sad commentary that in this modern age, it takes someone like an Anton Chigurh to rouse us from our cruise control ennui and complacency. It shouldn't have to be like that. Suffering is all around us. In our neighborhoods, within the walls of our own homes. Even when we look in the mirror. No Country for Old Men is merely well made escapist fare with cool characters (a la Pulp Fiction)that satisfies our national fetish for violence. That isn't art. So let's all get down from our cultural purveyor thrones (I mean you Roger Ebert, AO Scott, Peter Travers, etc), wipe the blood from our lips, and save the awards for something a little more ennobling.