Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Old, I Wonder About the Movies

No Country for Old Men and I met last night and the film came away the winner; while I was beaten up pretty badly.
by Charlie Leck

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about a list of the 50 best movies of this past decade – the 00 decade. Of the top ten I had not seen a single one. I decided I would set out to view them all and then try to decide what it was about each that made it so special.

Santa happened to put a DVD of one of them in my stocking – NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN – and so I thought I would begin with that.

A couple of nights ago, Mother was off with one of the kids (40 years old now) to see CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre, so I thought it would be a good night to pop the old disk into the machine to watch the flick.

“Jesus, mother of God and all the saints combined!” What was I watching? Is it a real reflection of the world in which we live – of even a small piece of it? Am I completely out of tune?

Bloodshed! Mayhem! Brutal murder! Cruelty! Frozen senses! Money! Is madness in control of us?

I had seen magnificent cinematography! The acting was flawless as far as I was concerned. The dialogue was remarkably realistic. But, what had I seen. The New York Times called it: “…tight editing, nimble camera work and faultless sound design…”

What had I watched? I tried to think of some tenderness in it? Was there feeling? Caring? The Sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), was brilliantly played. The Sheriff is the moral center of this film and the gruesomeness of the events that surround him make him grow older and more tired right before our eyes.

His monologue, at the conclusion of the film, is classically delivered and could have been a scene from Macbeth. He has just retired and sits in his kitchen, wondering what to do with his day, feeling confused and chatting with his precious and understanding wife. She asks him to tell her about the dream he had during the night.

He'd had two dreams, he explains, and both were about his father -- "I'm older by far now than he ever was." In the second dream, he explains, he was riding a horse into the mountains at night, heading up a pass in the dark and cold, with snow all about. His father came up from behind, also on horseback and carrying a fire in a horn built for it, to give out warmth.

"He just road on past me. Never said nothin' and had a blanket wrapped around him, head down. He was goin' on ahead and he was fixin' to build a fire out there in all that dark, all that cold, and I knew he'd be there whenever I got there. Then I woke up!"

At that perplexing, tender instant the screen went sharply black and there was total silence. Then the credits, in that silence and on that black screen, began to roll.

Carla Jean’s (Kelly MacDonald) subtle love for her husband, Llewelyn (Josh Brolin). That was another tender and real moment. She loses her life to Chigurh, the killer. And, in small moments and in a crazed moment of crisis, his love for her is revealed as well. Both of these actors perform magnificently.

The brilliance of the acting is best exemplified for me in Woody Harrelson’s performance as Carson Wells, when he sits before the black villain in this film, knowing he is going to die. The fear that Wells tries so unsuccessfully to hide is our fear, too. I will never forget Harrelson in that moment. He tries to make sense of it all. He tries not to be a coward. No poker bluff would work in this instance and he knew it. All his senses tasted the end of his life and fear consumed them all. A brilliant moment.

And the killer, Anton Chigurh, was also well played by Javier Bardem. Was there one moment of tenderness or kindness in his performance? I suppose it was in that instant that he allows the flip of a coin to decide if he shall let one poor, irrelevant son-of-bitch live instead of die.

In the end, when the film suddenly goes black (it does not fade, but abruptly goes to black) and the credits roll, I am left stunned and glad there is no more, but intrigued by the question of its meaning. Is it some weakness in me that kept me glued to the screen for the full running of film?

The story was actually weak, but the acting was simply incredible and the realism of the photography (or cinematography) was captivating. The direction, as far as I’m concerned (and I’m not an experienced critic) was brilliant. I saw it in the attention to detail – every set so perfectly and realistically done that it captured the senses and made you feel as if you were secretly and quietly present. Yet, there was also some fear in me that I couldn’t release – some fear that this is really our world gone mad and that there is more of this in reality than my sheltered life allows me to know about.

The New York Times calls the film “relentlessly violent!” That says it well. Why then would I sit, glued to the chair, and watch it to the end? Just because it was technically so good? No! Because my soul kept asking “why?” and hoping some answer would be provided.

I supposed Sheriff Bell tried to answer that need for me at the end of the film, in his tired, broken explanation of his retirement. I hung on each of his words until the screen turned its sudden black emptiness on me and I shuddered with relief and exhaustion.

The Cohen Brothers again show their genius at film making in this production. I am impressed by that. I just never was able to figure out why Cormac McCarthy told the story in his original book or why I wanted to stay with it until the end.

I’m not going to argue with the film’s ultimate placement so high on the list of the best films of the decade. It belongs there. I just didn’t need to see it!

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