Sunday, November 25, 2007

No movie for cockeyed optimists

I've had a hard time figuring out what to say about No Country For Old Men, the movie based on Cormac McCarthy's bleak novel of the same name. My first reaction on coming out of the theater Friday night: I liked it a lot -- right up until the abrupt ending. One guy in the theater actually cried out, "What the hell?" From what I could see, It was a reaction widely shared.

Having read the book, I wasn't expecting Home Alone. But the novel's nihilism was leavened somewhat by some reflective passages toward the end that left you with the feeling that the story had been told; that if morality is meaningless, at least it helps you sleep at night. The movie tries to do the same thing with a single short soliloquy and a cut to black, and I don't think it works.

Still, anybody who appreciates the craft of movie-making should see it, because there's so much to admire. Start with the casting: It's hard now to see how anyone but Javier Bardem could play the role of Anton Chigurh, and it's amazing how that dopey haircut seems to magnify his menace -- kind of like the leisure suit and VW Beetle did for M. Emmett Walsh in Blood Simple. Tommy Lee Jones was the obvious choice to play Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, with a face as weathered as the Texas landscape, but he doesn't just phone it in. This is a nuanced portrayal of a small-town lawman who thinks he's seen it all, then comes to realize he hasn't seen the half of it. Woody Harrelson doesn't get a lot of screen time, but one scene, where he cannot quite remain cool in the most dire of circumstances, is the best work of his career.

Also, I believe the Coen Brothers are at the height of their power as directors. No Country is perfectly paced, devoid of gimmickry, and there is no scene during which you will want to slip out for your free refill on the jumbo popcorn. There are a number of scenes where I defy you to eat popcorn at all.

The Coens are also credited as screenwriters, although their strict adherence to McCarthy's scenes and dialog makes me wonder how much additional writing was involved. It's here, I think, that it might have been possible to make the ending more comprehensible -- without, of course, grafting a Die Hard-style ending onto it.

Not that I'm a big fan of nihilism, which I consider philosophy for dummies. In No Country for Old Men, the Texas desert is indifferent to good and evil. Life and death are determined by the random collision of objects and men. Fair enough. The problem I have is that in such a world, evil men enjoy an edge because they don't expect any better. Good men do, and must suffer more when they discover that all of life is the toss of a coin, that virtue is no reward at all. If we consider that the purpose of fiction is to impose meaning on human experience, nihilism -- the utter lack of meaning -- is probably not the best desk from which to work.

Does that make sense? I don't know. It did while I was writing it. My bottom line won't make sense either: Dave Bob says four stars out of five, but doesn't necessarily recommend that any depressed or really upbeat persons see it. If you do though, let's do a couple hits of Lexapro and talk about it.

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