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.
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).
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…?)
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!