Hey all, I’m hoping to start an ongoing series that surveys the intersection between film and literature–more specifically, on what mysterious qualities make a literary work ripe for cinematic interpretation. It certainly isn’t the inherent worth or prestige of the material, as the late work of John Huston (Wise Blood, Under the Volcano, The Dead etc. ad nauseam) and the thicket of middling Dickens and Austen adaptations will attest.
Mitch’s post on the Coen brothers upcoming sure-to-be-awesome ‘re-imagining’ of True Grit got me thinking of the Coens last sterling literary adaptation, the much-garlanded No Country for Old Men (2007), which was based on Cormac McCarthy’s 2004 novel. While I liked the book well enough — the dust-bowl-dry descriptive prose and pulpy, corkscrew plotting marked a nice shift in register from the elegiac romanticism of his Border Trilogy, or the inchoate Mellvillian bombast of the terrifying mega/meta-western Blood Meridian — I found that McCarthy’s cosmic fatalism seemed awkwardly wrenched into an otherwise no-nonsense thriller, in the cumbersome form of the Sheriff Bell character’s italicized, galumphingly allegorical ruminations. By stripping away all the metaphysical bushwa (save for the film’s now classic open or ambiguous ending) the Coen’s actually allow McCarthy’s themes to accrue greater heft, even a measure of majesty. Anyway, here’s what I wrote back when it was first released and I stand by every word: I mean, can anyone think of a better Hollywood studio film that’s come out since?
‘Loved by movie fans, tolerated by cinephiles and not-so-secretly loathed by the more ‘discerning’ film critics, each new Coen brothers movie marks another occasion for a humourless debate about the artist’s proper relationship to their characters and audience.
I’ll be the first (okay, the fifth or sixth) to admit that there is something airless and self-canceling about the Coens synthetic, vacuum sealed mastery — their films give the impression of being gene-spliced and sequenced by the goggled, liberally latexed brothers as if they were cloning lab mice. But hell, that’s what makes there best, most superficially fatalistic films — Millers Crossing, Fargo and, supremely, Barton Fink — so interesting, and what makes their slavish fidelity to Cormac McCarthy’s heartily masculinist thriller so surprising. Indeed, what’s new about No Country is the lack of alienating-but-entertaining Coenisms (the loopy humour, absurdist flights of fancy, the raging comic caricature that approaches Fellini-esque grotesquerie) and the movies lone false note is the withered, jive-talkin’ momma of Kelly MacDonald who seems to have escaped from Nick Cage’s Trailer in Raising Arizona.
Unsurprisingly, McCarthy’s musical, region-specific diction is preserved with a lexicographers respect by the brothers and cast, and the serpentine narrative is brought off with more elan then some of the tortured curlicues in the novel. And then there’s the actors — oh the actors! Naturally, Tommy Lee Jones comes pre-packaged in cowboy boots, experience-weathered and portent-leaden, but the Coens uninspired (but inevitable) casting is assuaged with a greater refinement of register; no actor alive could pull off the truly shocking final speech-cum-ellipsis with more solemn gravity or craggy authority. And Kelly Macdonald proves once again that she is peerless at seeming both vulnerable and strong, naive and world-weary.
Stylistically, as always, the brothers are in top (or characteristic) form: fastidious compositions, the precise — at times lethal — deployment of light and shadow, editing rhythms set to the incrementally accelerating pulse of a Geiger counter and dialogue so sharp it could slice the tongues of less experienced thespians. This is not nothing, and is too easily dismissed by Coen dismissers as aptitude in place of artistry and synthetics in place of sensibility. Yet simply put, the Coens are better at everything (i.e. everything most visible in a movie: narrative and visual control, conceptual energy and imagination — dialogue) than all of there North American colleagues and if that doesn’t hurtle them into the pantheon, it is at least worth an honourable mention.
In closing, the tremblingly humanist avenue of filmmaking (Renoir, Welles, Hou, the Dardennes, whoever) is justifiably cherished, yet does that mean there is no room for alternate, less fulsome or celebratory modes of address? Does every artist have to crawl down on the mat and spoon with their reeking oh-so-human creations, suppress comic portraiture and relinquish aesthetic control just to be nice? The fact that the Coens don’t tender their themes with more tremulous sincerity is, in best pomo style, a good thing as it forces the viewer to keep rechecking his or her responses to what’s happening on screen and not fall for easy cynicism, winking snark or crushing fatalism despite one or all of these things being present in nearly every moment of the film. And in the end, it’s the Coens uncomfortable ease in presentation and Olympian chill that turns No Country’s canned misanthropy and mouldering genre mechanics into something rich, strange and disturbing — not to mention funny.’