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.