I finally made it to the theatre to catch this year's"best picture," the Coen Brothers' "No Country for Old Men." I'd missed it the first time it played in the area, and being a fan of the Coens from waaaaay back (we're talking "Blood Simple" and "Raising Arizona"), I'd let myself down by letting it pass by.
A week before, I viewed "Country's" Oscar rival, the best picture nominee, "There Will Be Blood." The two movies--both up for eight Oscars--are similar in many ways: both are male-dominated movies in which female roles are minimal. Both films feature extremely strong performances by the lead as well as supporting actors. Both are set in the west and are strong dramas pointedly tackling morality. And both films share endings that left the audiences. . .well, surprised.
"Blood" is a Citizen Kane-like tale of the clash of green and religion, documenting the rise and fall of oil man Daniel Plainview, a cunning, ruthless businessman who isn't afraid to get his hands dirty, in more ways than one, to keep nothing in his way of building his petroleum empire. Though screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights," "Magnolia") claims to have based this period (1900s-1930s) drama on the Upton Sinclair muckraker "Oil," this would appear to be a loose adaptation. Plainview is played by Daniel Day Lewis (Best Actor winner) , who completely loses himself in the role, morphing into a mid-career John Huston rasp and measured cadence. He can be a charmer--he hauls around his young adopted son H.W. to put worried communities at ease that he's a "family man" running a "family business" and he'd never do anything to harm their town with his wildcatting. But he's never planning less than a few steps ahead of his competitors who are not only other oil companies, but the local charismatic preacher, Eli Sunday ("Little Miss Sunshine's" Paul Dano, who becomes an obstacle to Plainview's plans that simply must be taken down before his parishioners. It is the battle between these two egos--neither one pure--that sets that stage for the movie's climactic scene and abrupt ending. The Oscar-winning cinematography by Robert Elswit, film editing by Dylan Tichenor, and original soundtrack by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood create an indelible sense of time and place. The photography is imply stunning, and Greenwood's music really adds to the strident and purposeful editing.
"No Country for Old Men", the Oscar winner, is a worthy rival. The faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's tale on evil and morality is perhaps the Coens' best recieved film. Director of photography Roger Deakins brought me back to west Texas once again. . . I swear I've inhabited this place before, and stayed at the cheap brick motels of Del Rio more than a couple of nights. "No Country" is first and foremost a chase movie: rural sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones, of course) and crazed hit man (Javier Bardem) with bad haircut and a novel murder weapon are both zeroing in on a West Texas knockabout (Josh Brolin) who stumbled upon a drug deal gone bad and ends up with a couple of million bucks in a briefcase. There's tension of course, lots of blood--visceral amounts of it--and a quiet side too as the laid-back sheriff is more intent on ruminating on the good old days of sherffin' and happy to let the DEA and other agencies to the heavy lifting. Typical of a Coen film, quirky characters and memorable dialogue abound.
The viewer senses that time is running out for the unlucky guy with the money, but when a climactic scene seems assured, the film just dies out. The open-ended conclusion to "No Country" made the Sopranos' finale seem like formulaic Hollywood by comparison. The small crowd in the showing I attended were clearly irritated by the way the film ended--"What the Hell?" was one of the milder comments hurled at the screen. This isn't to say that I didn't enjoy "No Country," rather that the quiet subplot featuring the philosophical sheriff had so lulled me into looking ahead for the next scene forwarding the story arc about the pursuit for the loot that I really wasn't paying too much attention when the screen went dark. I can't place the blame for this at the feet of the Coens--having not read the novel the film was based upon, I can only take the word of those who have in saying that the movie is fairly faithful to the book, and laud the Coens for not monkeying with it to create something "tidier."
He runs a "family business."
Which should have won the Oscar? The Coens deliver what you'd expect them to, while "Blood's" Anderson expands a body of work previously mired in contemporary Southern California self-absorption with a fine historical epic. While Anderson's ending was abrupt as well, it at least took the plot to a logical conclusion. I don't feel I should feel obligated after attending a movie to have to hustle myself onto the internet to read critics' interpretations of a film. With Anderson's "Blood," I didn't feel I had to. But with "Old Country," I felt it was the only way I could help make my way out of the existentialism they created. As one critic concluded, "It creaks with significance, but I left the cinema not entirely convinced that the glittering plaudits it has won are entirely deserved ."