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Aug 09 2010

Film review: No Country for Old Men and the Coen brothers’ oeuvre

You have to grant writers-directors-producers Joel and Ethan Coen one thing: they make interesting films. Not for them the formulaic, genre-tailored approach to filmmaking. Not for them endless sequels to hits or even to follow up a hit film with one similar in style. Each film seems to go off in a different direction from the previous one and stands alone. They take risks and for that quality alone one has to respect them.

Having said all that, the results are a mixed bag and I cannot say that I have enjoyed all the films that I have seen of their oeuvre: Raising Arizona (1987), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), No Country for Old Men (2007), Burn After Reading (2008), and A Serious Man (2009).

I tend to prefer the more lighthearted films in that list. Raising Arizona (made before Nicholas Cage became insufferably annoying) was good, as was The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and Burn After Reading. The Hudsucker Proxy was passable but A Serious Man was a serious disappointment.

One thing about their films that I dislike, especially the later ones, is their tendency to end abruptly, leaving multiple story threads unresolved. I know that real life does not have everything tied up neatly at the end like an Agatha Christie novel, and I can live with some level of lack of resolution but No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man all left me feeling annoyed at the end at their seeming pointlessness because even the main storyline is unresolved. (I should have really liked the last one because the main character is a physics professor and I could actually understand the quantum mechanics equations that he wrote on the board. But even that feeling of smug superiority was insufficient to make me like the film.)

Some of their films, especially Fargo and No Country for Old Men, had some seriously violent scenes that don’t appeal to me but the former film was much better in that it had a much better story and more plausible characters. I had avoided seeing No Country for Old Men for a long time because of its reputed violence and also because it was based on a book by Cormac McCarthy. The latter fact was greatly emphasized in advertising for the film because McCarthy is an acclaimed writer for his depictions of the modern American southwest. But I had read his highly praised novel All the Pretty Horses and did not like it at all and had to really struggle to complete it. But I finally decided to watch the film since people were speaking so highly of it.

My misgivings were justified. No Country for Old Men is a pretty bad film. After seeing it, I had the same feeling as after seeing the highly touted Pulp Fiction (1994), a film that turned me off Quentin Tarantino for good. Both films were praised by critics as masterpieces but I thought both were awful. What was the point of all that blood and gore? Just to sicken viewers? While violence does not appeal to me, it is not an automatic disqualifier. David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005) was actually pretty good because the violence was necessary to drive the story forward.

I have mentioned before that one thing that really annoys me is implausibility, and violent films are particularly prone to this failing because the characters have amazing self-healing capacities. Lead characters may be beaten to a pulp but the wounds and bruises disappear remarkably quickly. I can overlook this if the films are really well made but if not, they quickly degenerate into farce.

It seems like filmmakers have found the secret to rapid recovery from life-threatening trauma: put on a new set of clothes. In No Country for Old Men, the Josh Brolin character is shot and is bleeding profusely, is nearly dead, but manages to make it to a hospital. After being treated, he immediately discharges himself, staggers out, goes to a store, buys new clothes, and within hours is walking around without any hint that he had almost died. Meanwhile, Javier Bardem, playing a psychopathic killer and drug dealer chasing the Brolin character, is shot in the leg and is bleeding badly. He limps into a pharmacy, and while everyone is distracted by an explosion he created, swiftly collects all manner of medicines and bandages, goes back to his motel, and treats his own injury by giving himself anesthetics and antibiotics and even extracting the bullet. (It was incredible that he knew exactly what medical items he needed, where to find them on the pharmacy shelves, and what he should do to treat himself. Is he supposed to have gone to medical school before becoming a killer?) Then a few hours later he also gets a new set of clothes and resumes his murderous spree without any sign of discomfort. It was at this point that the film jumped the shark and I could not take it seriously anymore.

In another implausibility, the Bardem character leaves a trail of dead bodies in his wake, many of them killed using a device used to slaughter cows that requires him to carry with him a bulky metal cylinder that presumably contains compressed gas. And yet he moves openly, even going back soon to the scenes of his previous murders, without even being pursued by police, let alone confronted by them. He was supposed to be an evil and sinister man who has no compunction about killing but the whole thing was so over the top that towards the end of the film I started laughing at its absurdities, never a good sign for a film that is supposed to be serious. Or was it the intention of the filmmakers to make a tongue-in-cheek spoof of violent films?

(Oddly enough, just the day before I had watched Bardem play the milquetoast highly romantic lead in Love in the Time of Cholera, based on the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The contrast in roles was striking.)

Will I watch the next Coen brothers’ film that comes out? It depends. I think the Coens have a great eye for the absurd and for unusual and quirky characters. In No Country for Old Men, they let excess lead to unintended absurdities and self-parody. But since they do not repeat themselves, I am hoping that this misstep does not occur again.

POST SCRIPT: Annoying actors

In the above review, I mentioned in passing that Nicholas Cage is insufferably annoying. His appearance in a film makes it very likely that I’ll give it a miss. There are other actors who fall into the same category: Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Robin Williams, and Renee Zellweger immediately come to mind.

I am curious if readers of this blog have similar strong dislikes. If so, please post them in the comments.

I must emphasize that what makes these people annoying is their on screen persona and not anything to do with their lives off-screen. For all I know, the people I listed may be exemplary human beings, perfectly charming in person and kind to children and animals. Conversely, Mel Gibson seems like an absolutely appalling person and yet he is not annoying on screen. Tom Cruise seems a little weird but has an agreeable on-screen persona.

13 comments

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  1. 1
    Norm Nason

    There are a few actors that I can no longer stomach. They include Sylvester Stallone, Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, and John Travolta. They have all become parodies of themselves–always seem to play the same character–and I avoid movies in which they are starring.

  2. 2
    Jared A

    I think what unifies many of the above actors is that they HAVE an onscreen persona–which is sort of antithetical to the whole point of acting. There’s a problem when you can be told who an actor is in a movie and then be able to make reasonably accurate predictions about the character in the movie.

    One person not mentioned that I can’t stand anymore is Tom Hanks. It’s hard to avoid him, so I can’t be categorical about it, but he has taken the aspects of his acting that once set him apart and turned them into something awful. I think the tipping point for me was Forrest Gump.

    Mel Gibson, John Travolta, and Julia Roberts all bother me, too. I object to Tom Cruise for always having the same on-screen persona, but I don’t always find him that offensive.

    Nicholas Cage is a special case. In a few cases his early movies were all right (like Tom Hanks), but eventually he was famous enough that he could choose his own roles and had some artistic license. And it turns out he has the worst taste ever, so he only appears in ridiculously stupid movies. Also, his main facial expression is: CRAZY EYES.

  3. 3
    Mano

    Norm,

    I had Stallone on my list originally bit then decided that he was too much of a low hanging fruit, and decided to restrict myself to people who are considered serious actors.

    Jared A,

    It is interesting about Tom Hanks. I too share your feeling that he is veering into being a one-note character. He needs to take more varied roles like the one in Road to Perdition

    There are some actors who are not annoying but I think are highly overrated. Scarlett Johansson is one. She seems to go through films with the same vacant expression. Bill Murray seems to have also started taking minimalism to an extreme where he now simply stares blankly. As you can imagine, I did not enjoy Lost in Translation which had both of them starring.

  4. 4
    henry gale

    I tend to avoid any movie with a Baldwin in it.

    It a bit strange because a few of the actors mentioned above I really like. Well, maybe I should say that I like quite a few movie that those actors are in.

    I seem to couple the movie with the actor. So if there is a movie I enjoy like National Treasure then I give Cage a bit of the credit for that. Note – I don’t think National Treasure is a ‘great’ movie but I was entertained while watching the formula unfold.

    Similarly, I really enjoyed The Island so I give Johansson a bit of the credit for that.

    In addition to the Baldwins, I avoid movies with Johnny Depp, Jim Carrey (stupid isn’t funny), Demi Moore, and Sig Weaver.

    Finally, I think Sly Stallone is really under appreciated and his reputation as an actor is probably unfairly influenced by his slow drawn out speaking style. He did an excellent turn in Cop Land and his career looked promising in the early days. That being said, I think Sly simply picked way too many bad roles to play. If he had simply stuck to acting in scrips he wrote or co-wrote we’d have a different view of him.

    For every one Turner and Hooch that Hanks has Sly has four or five Stop! Or my mom will shoot.

  5. 5
    James Thornton

    You mentioned Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Robin Williams, and Renee Zellweger as actors that you don’t care for on-screen. I actually like them all, except for Robin Williams. He annoys me to no end on-screen. I am not sure if it is because he looks funny or he tries to hard with his acting. He comes off zany. As for Nicholas Cage, he has picked a few duds along the way; however, for the most part I do like him.

  6. 6
    Goat

    i strongly agree on renee zellweger, hugh grant, and robin williams. also intolerable are melanie griffith, billy crystal, martin short and linda fiorentino. the latter is not a huge actress but her performance in “dogma” was probably the single most irritating movie performance i’ve ever seen.

  7. 7
    shanti

    I never watch movies with Sylvester stallone
    Mel Gibson and Tom cruise but I am a fan of Richard Gere and Michael Douglas and generally
    enjoy watching their movies. Kate Winslet and
    Meryl Streep are my favourites among the women
    actors. I still prefer the older movies to the
    current ones and never miss an old one if it
    comes on TV

  8. 8
    Shlomo

    To tell you the truth, Pulp fiction was a great movie, one of my favourites from the 90′s actually, No country from old men I can understand your frustration from it because the story is left open with no punch line, but that’s the Cohen brothers style.

  9. 9
    Kural

    Quentin Tarantino is a highly overrated director though not as bad as Speilberg who is simply overrated. Tarantino’s movies have wafer thin plots (if at all) and are held together just by the oodles of excessive and unnecessary violence. For a number of reasons I am very glad that I didn’t watch his Inglorious Basterds, for one thing it stars one of my absolute bottom-of-the-listers Brad Pitt. I wouldn’t watch him if the alternative were a root canal+extraction without anesthesia. Tom Cruise is great, the way he pours himself into every offbeat role he does – take his role in Tropic Thunder as the paunchy, balding, Hollywood producer – fabulous. Tom Hanks, I call Tom Hams. He has a rare talent to convert every character into Tom Hanks – same expressions, same looks, same laughs, same cluelessness. Terrible. A big time Ham. Will Ferrell is absolutely unwatchable – he is incapable of acting that’s it. That said I don’t mind some of the less pretentious types we have, Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Toby McGuire, Jake Gyllenhall, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr, Leonardo, even Matthew McConaughey.

    And then after violence comes foul language. Most of the time it is unnecessary. I hate Glenngary Glenross – a v. highly overrated film which without the bad language would have nothing in it.

  10. 10
    Scott

    I have to disagree on No Country. I found it brilliant. I chalk up the indestructablity of the main characters to cinematic license. In an action movie, bullets are flying everywhere, but the main characters never get hit. People get knocked out by a blow to the head, but are up and fine moments later, rather than recovering for days or weeks from a concussion. Also, the film follows the book very closely.

    I really prefer unknowns in movies. With big stars, I find myself caught up more in the actor than the character. “That’s Brad Pitt playing Achilles, rather than Achilles,” in Troy (which he was awful in). Too many stars get typecast, so that moviegoers can go see that new Tom Cruise movie knowing it will be another Tom Cruise movie. It make marketing easier, I guess.

  11. 11
    Cynner

    I don’t understand why Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler, Russell Crowe and Julia Roberts get to keep making movies.

  12. 12
    Walter

    I liked pulp fiction as it read like a typical multi story novel, no country for old men was good as it left the ending for a part 2 !! can’t stand movies with Richard Gere in

  13. 13
    Carl

    No Country for Old Men has some of the best acting I’ve seen. Brolin was great

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