Wednesday, April 16, 2008

What I've Seen: No Country for Old Men / Lost Highway

This is probably something that I should have an opinion on, but I have to admit that I still don't know quite how I feel about the Coen brothers. It's never felt like a chore to watch one of their movies, but at the end I typically feel like I missed something, either because of some unclear plot point or, more often, the many strange lines, motifs and images that feel like they were supposed to add up to more than I was able to understand.

This isn't so much a knock on the movies themselves; Raising Arizona, The Big Lewbowski, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? are some of my favorites because there's so much going on in them that rewards multiple viewings. The problem for me is the dramas. Fargo was great, but it's almost impossible for me to watch because of the sick feeling I get in my stomach as William H. Macy's character gets in more and more over his head. The Man Who Wasn't There gives me the same problem, and even the comparatively lighter Barton Fink and Miller's Crossing aren't exactly delightful. I have a feeling that these could become some of my favorite films, if only I had the guts to watch them a few more times.

And so it is with No Country for Old Men, which despite being very effective and compulsively watchable (and kind of confounding), still left me feeling like it was a little overrated. Yet there were things in it that I'm sure would impress me more and more on subsequent viewings. The cinematography of the great Roger Deakins, for example, or the way sound effects largely took the place of a traditional score, or the recurring shots of boots.

One thing that I certainly could certainly respect was the way that the filmmakers constantly upended the elements of a conventional thriller. It spends much of its running time setting up various conflicts that go unresolved and showdowns that never occur. A tense scene that is interrupted by a false scare just as quickly is punctured by the real scare. Anton Chigurh, the villain, is a killer who lives by a code, but it's a code that makes him more terrifying, not more sympathetic.

The most daring part of all is when a scene that would seem to be the climax of the film is excluded completely; we see the run-up and the aftermath, but the key event itself is left out. I'm guessing that this is the point when a good portion of the film's audience became either lost or fed up. Up until then, the Coens certainly don't shy away from violence, and are busy racking up probably the highest body count of their careers. The only act of violence that takes place afterwards, though, is only hinted at, to the point that whether it even happened at all could be a matter of debate.

Joel and Ethan Coen seem to take a profound joy in fucking with their audience; even the end credits seem a bit askew. While it's not my favorite film of theirs, it seems fitting that this and not Fargo won the Best Picture Oscar. Like their best work, it leaves you thinking, "Well, that was different..."


As a bonus, here's a haiku summarizing my reaction to Lost Highway:
David Lynch's films
Tend to be pretty fucked up
(Seriously -- huh?)

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