Tag Archives: Woody Harrelson

No Country for Old Men (2007, Joel and Ethan Coen)

There’s something untranslatable about the last line of a novel. Even though maybe it shouldn’t, it essentially sums up everything–not just the scene or the story or the characters, but the reader’s experience as well… (whether the writer’s experience of writing the book is summed up in the line is, obviously, immaterial). With No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers translate that moment in to filmic terms, which is a film first in my experience.

The film is a masterful immersive experience, the wide open Texas plains, the gradual, somehow disinterested narrative, Tommy Lee Jones’s soothing performance of an also somewhat disinterested character. The minute Josh Brolin walks across the plains, looking for the money he and the viewer knows must be there, No Country opens up and swallows the viewer. The maw invisibly closes. Javier Bardem is a red herring. While he’s fantastic, the character is fantastic, he’s not the compelling aspect. Brolin’s generally unlikable character, however, his experience–for much of the film–is the viewer’s reference point. The Coen’s don’t even need to do it in a standard way (I kept thinking about Robocop, how Verhoeven realized he needed to make the violence as graphic as possible to make the audience care about a character they’d known fifteen minutes)… I think they’ve got it down just from Brolin spying the money. The viewer cares about him because, for a few key moments, he or she and the character are the same–realizing the same things at the same time, thinking the same thing. It’s not big realization stuff, it’s empirical observation followed by a conclusion, which is different.

I’m wondering if that immersion is solely responsible for the Coen’s handling of the passing of time. No Country for Old Men doesn’t have a pace, it doesn’t go fast, it doesn’t drag. It just plays out. So I guess the playing out is a result of the immersion… But there are no rises or falls in action, in tenseness. The tenseness is on the scene level. There’s oddly no air of dread hanging over Old Men all together–something one of the characters brings up near the end: what, exactly, could happen differently. There’s no expectation of the coming scene. There’s some foreshadowing, but it’s not the same thing. No Country doesn’t create any anticipation… again, it’s an immersion result. Such effective immersion isn’t a new thing, but in a thriller, one would think it was cross-purpose. But it’s not. No Country for Old Men simply transcends the genre, possibly without even thinking about it (the Coens, usually so ready to be recognized for the dissimilarities between their films, draw no attention to No Country’s genre… in many ways, it’s the least Coen-identified film of theirs in fifteen years).

They also learned how to cast. Usually, their casts draw attention to themselves through familiarity or peculiarity (mostly how distracting William H. Macy got playing his standard in Fargo). Here, not at all. While Jones is playing a somewhat familiar role (though I’ve never actually seen him play a Texas lawman before), he’s doing something entirely different–he’s not a reluctant everyman compelled to act. Javier Bardem takes the film’s hardest role and makes it look like the easiest (he takes his character, a filmic villain only marginally different from Halloween’s Michael Myers and the like, and makes him real). Brolin’s deceptively good as the not-quite protagonist–every time I thought anyone could do the job, he did something to make himself essential.

When No Country started and was in Texas, I tried to force myself to look for some connection to Blood Simple. I quickly gave up, because–as usual–the Coen Brothers were doing something different. Except with this one, they put the film before their name brand quirkiness.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen; screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Roderick Jaynes; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Jess Gonchor; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Tommy Lee Jones (Sheriff Ed Tom Bell), Javier Bardem (Anton Chigurh), Josh Brolin (Llewelyn Moss), Woody Harrelson (Carson Wells), Kelly Macdonald (Carla Jean Moss), Garret Dillahunt (Deputy Wendell), Tess Harper (Loretta Bell), Barry Corbin (Ellis) and Stephen Root (Man Who Hires Wells).


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A Scanner Darkly (2006, Richard Linklater)

For a while–during the film–A Scanner Darkly is a great film. It sets itself up as a significant examination of man’s identity and its relation to the people around him. It’s based on Philip K. Dick and that theme is one Dick used at least one other time (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). When adapting the novel, which I haven’t read, I get the feeling Richard Linklater kept it a little too close, keeping summary storytelling. The film races through its last act, which is around eleven minutes long, and never solidifies the many excellent elements. They don’t quite disappear, they just don’t get the attention they deserve. For example, Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder have this wonderful relationship, which even endures a “surprise,” but Linklater doesn’t finish it up. It isn’t like he sacrifices it for anything. The problem with A Scanner Darkly is its length. It’s not long enough.

The film’s pseudo-animation style–Linklater filmed the actors, presumably together–then had computers draw over them, works perfectly for the film. Linklater doesn’t account for the style, however, which is probably a mistake. Besides certain special effects considerations, the style is appropriate because Darkly is about drug addiction and its effects. The style works as a visual representation of those effects. I imagine Linklater didn’t want to label the style, but it just seems another thing he withheld.

Where Linklater did good–wonderfully–was his casting and his directing of his actors. Keanu Reeves probably gives his best performance and there are these scenes between Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson… Linklater’s scenes about drug addicts are easily the best since Trainspotting, but he’s also got a great feel for the rest of the material, the alienation material. Throughout, the film’s scenes are, like I said, great. Winona Ryder is so good, I was wondering who was playing her role, as the animation made it possible it wasn’t her and she was so good, I couldn’t believe it was Ryder. The only acting problem is Linklater regular Rory Cochrane, who mugs for the camera. With one exception, an excellent scene, Cochrane’s bad when he’s alone. When he’s with other actors, he’s fine. Alone, he mugs the whole scene.

A Scanner Darkly ultimately fails. Actually, it ultimately achieves something more than mediocrity, but it does offer an excellent eighty-five minutes. Unfortunately, the film runs a hundred minutes (and should run around 135 minutes).

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Linklater; screenplay by Linklater, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick; director of photography, Shane F. Kelly; edited by Sandra Adair; music by Graham Reynolds; production designer, Bruce Curtis; produced by Anne Walker-McBay, Tommy Pallotta, Palmer West, Jonah Smith and Erwin Stoff; released by Warner Independent Pictures.

Starring Keanu Reeves (Bob Arctor), Robert Downey Jr. (Jim Barris), Woody Harrelson (Ernie Luckman), Winona Ryder (Donna Hawthorne) and Rory Cochrane (Charles Freck).


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