The Wonderful Thing About Chigurh

Chig

So — am attempting to find something to say about every film I watch, so that puts a little pressure on to react to the Coens’ latest offering, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.

There are three broad kinds of reaction folks can have to the Coens’ oevre:

1) Liking the films. I was basically in this camp until INTOLERABLE CRUELTY and THE LADYKILLERS, which seemed to mark a colossal decline, and which incidentally were the first films the Coens had made using other people’s source material, a process which has continued with NCFOM, a fairly faithful adaptation, by most accounts, of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. (An earlier adaptation of James “Deliverance” Dickey’s To The White Sea failed to find backing, leading to the present cycle of films.) Previously, I had tended to find that I liked each film a little less than the one before, the decline starting after RAISING ARIZONA. So I am now in category 2 –

2) Liking some and not others. Since some Coen Bros films have been big box office hits and some have been flops, maybe most of the film-viewing western world is in this category. But it always puzzled me, since the sensibility on display is so consistent. If you liked FARGO, why wouldn’t you like THE BIG LEBOWSKI? (Up until this current release, Coens films with short titles have consistently done better than ones with longer). There is a recognisable Coens attitude (they like to appear smarter than their characters) as well as a set of self-conscious motifs (which the brothers like to point out, helpfully: weird hair, blustering titans, vomiting, fat men screaming) and a self-conscious visual style (toned-down slightly in FARGO and NO COUNTRY). But it’s now clear to me that not only are a couple of the Coens films markedly inferior, compromised works, but that I am becoming slightly less enamoured of the whole Coens vibe, leading my position ALMOST to border on category 3 –

3) Those who don’t like the films. While Coens detractors may admit that the films are well-made, even stylish, and the brothers certainly have some flair for dialogue, the argument against tends to centre on a certain lack of feeling. The Coens like to write about dumb people doing dumb things, often with a high mayhem factor in the outcome. At the same time, the writing-directing-producing-editing team are keen to show off how smart they are, with showy film technique, extravagant dialogue and cultural references — several Coens films are overt pastiches, almost amounting to plagiarism, of the styles and stories of James M. Cain (BLOOD SIMPLE), Dashiell Hammett (MILLER’S CROSSING) and Raymond Chandler (THE BIG LEBOWSKI), while OH BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? fuses various scenes and satiric approaches from Preston Sturges’ SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS onto the narrative of Homer’s Odyssey.

fugitives from a chain gang

This tendency to set themselves up as superior to their characters is quite objectionable to some, but while I detect its presence and admit that’s what’s going on, it never bothered me too much. Whether the Coens have contempt for their characters, or love them, *I* like H.I. and the Dude and Marge, which is enough for me. I also see the Coens as working primarily in a comic register, even in an apparently serious flick like BLOOD SIMPLE or MILLER’S CROSSING, so the use of slightly dopey characters is a genre convention and comedy device that I can’t particularly object to. It’s apt that the Coens finally referenced Preston Sturges, who has a similarly aloof relationship to his characters, although I think it’s clearer that he sympathises with them (and also, he doesn’t inflict gory violence upon any of them, except in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS and the imaginary sequences of UNFAITHFULLY YOURS — come to think of it, he’s gorier than any contemporaneous comedy director).

Capitalism and Labour destroy each other

Seeing the C-Bros as comedy filmmakers may reduce the obnoxiousness somewhat, but it perhaps becomes a problem in their latest, which isn’t overtly hilarious at any point. Despite its dramatic surface, as David Ehrenstein has argued, the film more or less continuously puts the spectator at an advantage over the characters: we generally know they’re going to die long before they do. Using dramatic irony or poignancy is a standard thriller device, but it’s unusual to see protagonists as continually predictable as this. The film generates surprise more by throwing in random plot developments (a car-crash from out of the blue) and violations of genre and narrative conventions (major characters eliminated off-screen, villains unpunished) than by interesting character psychology.

So, if the film is not consistently funny, what is the point of this God’s-eye view of the characters? The ironic distance seems more a matter of habit or compulsion than a necessary approach to the story. The Coens have never cared for theme, or making a point, or teaching a lesson, or even putting over a world view: their films are too filtered through books and other movies to comment directly on any form of reality. They are interested purely in story, in tall tales which feature surprising twists, tone shifts and genre-bending — the films are fairy tales, devoted to the plot and nothing but the plot.

(Javier Bardem’s unpronounceable psychopath in NO COUNTRY is a near-supernatural monster, implacable and seemingly impervious to pain. Tommy Lee Jones’ dream of his approaching death at the end seems intended to turn the story to some kind of semi-baked allegory, with J.B. as Death Incarnate in a page-boy haircut. The Coens’ fairytale world has made earlier use of such folkloric figures: an angel and demon in THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse in RAISING ARIZONA, and just about everybody in OH BROTHER…?)

snow country

It’s not surprising that NO COUNTRY, like FARGO, comes to centre on a suitcase full of money — the ultimate empty MacGuffin, a motivating object that require no explanation at all, and can disappear from the story once it has inspired enough carnage. The film, like previous Coen Brothers projects, is essentially about nothing.*

SO — if I’m starting to like the Coens less, it’s not because I object to their tone, it’s simply because, with each stylish, empty film, they seem to repeat themselves a little more, and it doesn’t feel like they can become more interesting unless they take a giant step and actually engage with something in the real world that they care about, if such a thing exists.

*

Footnote: Kelly MacDonald is really good in this film. Hardly anybody has mentioned her in reviews, but I think her journey as an actress has been considerable: barely acceptable in TRAINSPOTTING, frequently mis-stressed her lines. Gradually rising to full adequacy, she has now surpassed that status with a rather strong, touching performance. She deserves more recognition for it, since it’s been achieved (after her first lucky break) through sheer hard work. (Plus I’ve met her and she’s really nice.)

*See also: most of John Hodges’ scripts for Danny Boyle. SHALLOW GRAVE, TRAINSPOTTING and A LIFE LESS ORDINARY all revolve around cases of cash!

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5 Responses to “The Wonderful Thing About Chigurh”

  1. I thought the interesting shift in No Country was that the Coens actually respect Llewelyn Moss , he’s a a mostly moral and intelligent protagonist. Behaves smartly under pressure and doesn’t screw up for stupid reasons. His demise comes about when he wavers in his purpose, loses his moral footing for a moment.
    While the Deputy Sheriff was the only obviously dopey looking character, he was the one who made all the smart deductions about the crime scene.

    I thought the film marked an interesting tonal shift too, harder , more austere, less self consciously flamboyant than the usual Coen piece. The use of sound is superb, particularly in the suspense scenes and there’s some great bits of implication in the storytelling ( checking his boots for blood ) that I could feel the audience shuddering from.

    I’ve never really been a big Coen fan up to now, it was always too smart-arse, something to admire rather than love. This is something different. Their best film IMHO.

    It was quite funny too.

  2. Many of Sturges’ characters can be regarded as fools or naifs in a thumbniail fashion. But he gives them a depth that can’t be dismissed out of hand. The characters and situations in for example The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek verge on the cartoonish. But Trudy’s love for Norval is genuine as is his for her. By the halfway point the fact of their love for one another becomes as moving as anything in Duras. Constable Knockenlocker is a hothead, but he has a lot to put up with besides Trudy and Noval. And Diana Lyn’s wisecracking kid sister is more than a device — like the heroine of the unspeakably smug Juno. When mass hysteria takes over as it frequently does in Sturges (hg. Hail the Conquering Hero, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock) its offered up as irresistible excitment of the sort that makes life worth living.

    BTW my dear friend Ruth Olay, who was quite the chic cabaret singer in th e 1950’s (she’s now in her 80’s) worked as Sturges’ secretary in the last leg of his U.S. studio years. Ruth says the most amazing thing about him was the way he could take whole chunks of well worked out dialogue and transpose them to different places in the screenplay and have different characters speak it. In this sense all of Sturges is a monologue.

    Gore Vidal is a great Sturges fan and can quote Robert Greig’s imperious butler in Sulliavn’s Travels verbatim, accent and inflections included.

    The Coens almost always approch their characters with barbeque tongs. Marge is one of the very few Coen characters who’s actually smarter than the viewer. It comes with the territory as she’s a classic “eccentric” detective. Female and extremely pregnant the villaisn scarcely pay her any mind. But she’s on to everyone’s game. You see the thing is the Coens are perfectly capable of creating admirable characters like Marge but lazily prefer to offer spectators a sneering gallery.

  3. Whew!
    Moss starts out rather unsympathetic because he leaves the dying Mexican, but then he redeems himself in sympathy by going back with water — a dumb move. (an anonymous call to the cops would’ve been smarter, and what’s he going to do if the Mexican’s alive? Hand him the water and piss off?). So he’s balanced between smart/mean and nice/dumb, but the story never allows him to be both nice and smart at once.

    Nearly everybody in Morgan’s Creek aquires depth and grace notes. There’s a small-minded councilman and the justice of the peace, but even they aren’t THAT bad, and don’t really deserve their comeuppance imho (“His license is REVOKED and his motel is CONDEMNED!”) Even Mister in Sullivan’s Travels is given a few plus points.
    I guess all Sturges’ characters are parts of himself, which is why he’s generally so generous and understanding to them.

    Now, I quite like some of the Coen idiots. I think Blood Simple is just rats running a maze, diverting but empty, but the chumps in Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski are rather loveable. So the Coens being superior to them doesn’t worry me so much — audiences have to feel superior to Laurel and Hardy but they have to love them too.

    Maybe this is part of the problem — it’s fine in short films, just about sustainable over a few features, but starts to get wearisome over the course of a long career.

    I was OK with No Country, but I sort of felt the sombre tone didn’t actually signify a much more serious film — what serious and real matter is being covered? Or is it just a grim caper about stolen money and an unstoppable killer?

  4. It’s just a grim caper aboud stolen money and an unstoppable killer. Jim Thompson meets Friday the 13th.

    The whole thing of giving water to the virtually dead Mexican is a replay of that brain dead woman in Florida that became a right wing cause celebre.

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