The Grim Brothers Coen

There are many things in No Country for Old Men that recall the Coens’ earlier films, specifically Blood Simple and Fargo; yet it feels notably different in many ways from those films. Intolerable Cruelty (and, from what I hear, Ladykillers) also felt unlike the earlier movies the brothers had made – in some ways, they felt more like someone was trying to imitate their style and succeeded in isolated scenes but, on the whole, failed… Failed, that is, to make a good Coen movie as well as a good film in general.

No Country for Old Men is a good movie. It may even be the best Coen film to date. Chances are I’ll never love it as much as Fargo, but that’s also for nostalgic reasons. Fargo is by no means anything less than a fantastic film, but it doesn’t have the sheer compactness and focus of No Country for Old Men.

And it doesn’t have Anton Chigurh.

Chigurh, as played by Javier Bardem, is one of the scariest movie characters in a long time. I’ve never read any Cormac McCarthy novels, and for all I know he was already frightening in the book, but what Bardem and the Coens make of him is chilling.

However, the film has plenty more going for it than Bardem’s psychotic Prince Valiant and his pneumatic slaughterhouse device. It works so well because the three main characters – Chigurh, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) – complement each other so well. The story and the protagonists are balanced to perfection; you’ll rarely see a film that is as intricately structured. Bell and Chigurh are like two poles, balanced on the axle that is Moss: not a bad guy, but deeply flawed and too sure of himself, even after he’s seen the force of nature that is the killer following him. Moss commits several stupid acts in the film, as well as some brilliant on-his-feet thinking, but his greatest stupidity lies in thinking that he has a chance against his opponent. Bell, on the other hand, seems to understand (and accept, in the very end) that there is some evil that is beyond comprehension and that cannot be tricked or beaten.

No Country for Old Men

If you’re like me, and an Academy Award is more likely to put you off a film, do yourself a favour. If you enjoy great acting and don’t mind bleakness that makes Sweeney Todd look like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (okay, that’s not quite fair – like Edward Scissorhands, perhaps), do go and see this film. And see it at a cinema rather than on TV. Roger Deakins’ work, which once again is quite magnificent, deserves the big screen. I just say The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and, once again, Fargo.

The death of Cranes

Today’s blog entry is about Japanese poetry.


The Man Who Wasn’t There isn’t usually one of the films by the Coen brothers that people mention first. You’ve got Fargo people and you’ve got The Big Lebowski people, and sometimes you get an elitist or purist who swears by Blood Simple. Then you’ve got the ‘bad’ Coen films that most people agree to be substandard: Intolerable Cruelty, The Hudsucker Proxy (which I’ve never seen), Ladykillers. For some reason, TMWWT falls under most people’s Coen radar.

There he is! (Or is he…?)

Which I don’t get. I saw the film yesterday evening, perhaps for the fifth or sixth time, and it gets to me every time. In terms of sheer craft, it’s up there with the Coens’ best: the black and white cinematography is gorgeous to look at, as rich and evocative as the best film noir. The music – half Beethoven, half Carter Burwell (the Coens’ regular composer) – is simple and subtle, yet spot on. The script deftly intertwines film noir elements with the absurdity that many of the brothers’ films have, so that the references to ’40s and ’50s sci-fi do not feel out of place (unless you’re a stickler for Generic Purity(tm) – in which case the Coens are probably not to your taste anyway).

More than every other film by the Coens, I find that TMWWT mixes the comic and the tragic beautifully. The sort of postmodern game that they tend to play in their movies is tricky: the films foreground their parodic elements, they revel in their artifice. This film isn’t different: consider, for instance, the scene after the wedding, where Ed puts the drunk, sleepy Doris to bed, and the voice-over starts the story of how they met and got together. This is interrupted by the phonecall that leads to Ed killing Big Dave (James Gandolfini, with more than a touch of Tony Soprano), but afterwards Ed comes back home, sits down on the bed again and continues the Ed & Doris story as if nothing had happened.

No man there, definitely…

Perhaps more than the other films by the Coen brothers, TMWWT doesn’t shy away from pathos, even if there’s always the element of humour. One of the scenes with the Cranes’ arrogant, egomaniac lawyer Freddy Riefenschneider has Ed basically confessing to the killing in front of Riefenschneider but, more importantly, in front of his wife – and she realises what has happened and that Ed knew about her affair. Frances McDormand’s acting, without a single line, is masterful in conveying her heartbreak.

The film’s handling of tones and styles culminates in its final scene – a scene that only the Coens could have pulled off. If you haven’t seen the film, don’t watch the following video. If you have seen the film, watch the scene and then go and watch the film again. You’ll find gems that you may not remember.

Super Coen Bros.

The Coen Brothers’ Fargo is special to me, for two reasons: For one thing, it was the first time I went out to the cinema with the woman who ended up sharing my life and my DVDs. (Yes, the ideal date movie contains scenes of people being put through wood chippers. No wonder we only got together nine years later…) The second reason is somewhat less romantic, or weird and worrying, depending on what your ideal date movie is: Fargo was my first Coen Brothers movie. Afterwards, I worked my way through Blood Simple (perhaps the Coens’ darkest film, in more than one way), The Big Lebowski (which I thought somewhat amusing at first but have come to love), Barton Fink (the greatest David Lynch movie that Lynch never made, and proof that the face of evil is Dan Tanner’s face) and so on.

Evil John Goodman (flanked by John Turturro)

I’ve never seen Raising Arizona, and after Intolerable Cruelty I decided to give The Ladykillers a miss. Intolerable Cruelty had roughly two good scenes, namely one of the funniest, most unexpected deaths in recent movie history (an honour it shares with another George Clooney film, Out of Sight), and Clooney’s speech on the power of love at the divorce attorneys’ convention, followed by the obligatory ‘slow clap’ (which I read as ‘snow clap’ when Roger Ebert first mentioned it, and it made perfect sense to me). The last Coen Brothers film I liked was The Man Who Wasn’t There.

So what was wrong with Intolerable Cruelty? I think it’s mainly this: the Coens populate their cinematic landscape with characters that are essentially postmodern cartoons. There’s no such thing as a naturalistic Coen character. Even the more sedate protagonists – Marge Gunderson, Doris and Ed Crane – are caricatures. Their character features are exaggerated for comic effect. However, and this is what distinguishes a good Coen film from a bad one, at least in my opinion, these protagonists are deeply human caricatures. Jerry Lundegard (perhaps my favourite performance in a Coen movie, and my favourite performance by William H. Macy) is both as much of a cartoon as Wyle E. Coyote and hilariously, tragically human. He is observed with a subtlety that requires repeat viewings to fully appreciate. Consider the scene where he comes home to find that his wife has been kidnapped (as planned by him), and he practices what to say to his father-in-law, trying to get the words and intonation just right, and then is flummoxed when he dials Wade’s number and is immediately put on hold. Or his growing frustration when Marge Gunderson interviews him a second time.

Even in one of their most cartoonish films, The Big Lebowski, there’s something deeply human about the characters, so that when Donnie dies of a heart attack, it’s funny, but it’s also moving. You accept the Dude and Walter as cartoons, yet at the same time they’re real. And that’s how I tell a good Coen Brothers movie from a bad one – when they manage to maintain that tension. But enough of this Monday morning pretentiousness; I want to leave you with what may be my favourite scene from The Big Lebowski.


P.S.: I hope you noticed how neatly I segued from my last blog entry, which I called a mere filler, to today’s topic. That’s planning for you – almost like Lost. They’re not making things up as they go along either! (Nor do they kill of characters if the actor has a run-in with the police for one reason or another. It’s all planned!)