Embracing the Melodrama Part II #107: No Country For Old Men (dir by the Coen Brothers)


No_Country_for_Old_Men_posterI love my home state of Texas and I love movies. Therefore, it has always upset me that most movies set in Texas get the state totally wrong.  That’s not exactly shocking.  Unlike the rest of the states, there’s actually a lot of variety to Texas.  We’re a big state and we’re home to a lot of people.  Unlike some place like Vermont, Texas is a world all its own and it’s not surprising that most outsiders are incapable of getting their mind around that and instead find themselves embracing simple-minded clichés and stereotypes.  That’s perhaps why the best films about Texas tend to be ones that were actually made by Texans.  If you want to see the real Texas — flaws and all — than I suggest watching the films of Richard Linklater or perhaps Wes Anderson’s Rushmore.

And yet, it took two outsiders to write, produce, and direct one of the best films ever made about Texas.  The 2007 best picture winner No Country For Old Men was largely the work of two brothers from Minnesota, Joel and Ethan Coen.  It’s not only one of the best films about my home state but it’s also one of the best films of the past decade.

Based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men tells the story of three determined men in South Texas whose lives are interconnected despite the fact that three of them spend almost the entire movie one step behind each other.  In fact, despite a few brief encounters where their paths meet, it can be argued that, at no point, do any of them truly interact with each other face-to-face.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is the type of person that anyone who has ever lived in Texas will have met.  He’s a hard-working, plain-spoken man, the type who drives a pickup, owns a gun, and likes to begin and end the day with a beer.  He lives in a trailer with his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald, who may be Scottish but speaks here with an almost flawless Texas accent).  Llewelyn’s not a bad guy but he’s not as smart as he thinks and, like a lot of folks down here, he doesn’t like the idea of being told what to do.  In fact, he’d almost rather die for his trouble than admit to making a mistake.  When Llewleyn comes across the aftermath of a drug deal turned violent, he takes off with a suitcase that contains $2,000,000.  After barely escaping the remaining drug dealers (and the scene where Llewelyn is chased by a pit bull is a classic), Llewelyn sends Carla Jeans to stay with her sick mother and then he grabs the suitcase and heads over to the next county.  It quickly becomes apparent, to the viewers at least, that Llewelyn has absolutely no idea how to get out of the mess that he’s found himself in.

And it’s quite a mess because Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) has been hired to track down the money.  Perhaps one of the greatest movie villains of all time, Chigurh is an almost unstoppable force of death and destruction.  Chigurh pursues Llewelyn across Texas, killing almost everyone who he meets along the way.  Interestingly enough, just as Llewelyn continually makes excuses for his own greed, Chigurh also makes excuses for his murderous activities, seeming to obsess over the role of fate and chance.  Whereas Llewelyn refuses to give up the suitcase, even though it means that he’s putting his own wife in danger, because he insists that he can figure out a way to keep the money, Chigurh occasionally dodges responsibility for his own actions by flipping a coin and putting the blame on fate.

And finally, there’s Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who is both the most decent and the most ineffectual male character to be found in the film.  He’s an old-fashioned lawman, the type who, had this film been made in the 50s or the 60s, would have been played by Gary Cooper and would have both vanquished Chigurh and given Llewelyn and Carla Jean marriage advice as well.  In the world of No Country For Old Men, however, Ed is almost always one step behind both Chigurh and Llewelyn.  Instead of saving the day, Ed spends most of the movie shocked and saddened by the violence around him.  As the film draws to its conclusion, he’s left to wonder whether any one man can make a difference.  He’s left to literally wonder whether his area of South Texas has truly become no country for old men.

I recently rewatched No Country For Old Men on TCM and I was surprised to discover just how well this film holds up, even after repeat viewings.  If anything, the film actually improves on repeat viewings.  Once you know how the story is going to end (and, in a fashion typical of both the Coens and Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men does not have a traditional ending), it’s easier to see all of the things that you may have been too overwhelmed to appreciate the first time, like Kelley McDonald’s performance as Carla Jean and Stephen Root’s cameo as Chigurh’s shady employer.

However, for me, the main reason that I appreciate No Country For Old Men is because it is one of the few films that actually manages to get South Texas right.  My mom was born and grew up in South Texas, in the town of Benavides to be exact.  I’ve spent a lot of time down there.  The portrait that No Country For Old Man paints of South Texas is not always flattering but it is largely accurate.  No County For Old Men captures both the region’s terrifying violence and its natural beauty.  It’s honest about the fact that there are men like Anton Chigurh but, at the same time, you occasionally meet an Ed Tom Bell as well.  And, of course, there’s a Llewelyn Moss in every town.  He’s the one who you meet and you hope — often against your better instincts — that he won’t get in over his head.

The Academy named No Country For Old Men the best film of 2007.  For once, the Academy was right.

Embracing the Melodrama #57: Winter’s Bone (dir by Debra Granik)


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I can still remember what it felt like, back in 2010, as I stepped out of the theater where I had just watched Winter’s Bone.  I had just spent 100 minutes engrossed in that film’s world and it was somewhat jarring to suddenly find myself back in my world.  The air around me was still.  The clear sky above me seemed to be a totally new shade of blue.  The sounds of passing cars and overheard conversations echoed in my head.  When I walked, I felt as if I was moving at a different, dreamier pace than everyone else, as if I was still only partially back in my world.

That’s the type of film that Winter’s Bone is.  It’s a film about life on the fringes, a portrait of a very real part of America that a lot of people don’t even realize exists.  It’s a film that sticks with you and dares you to try to forget the people who it has introduced you to and the stories that it tells.

Winter’s Bone takes place in the Ozarks, a society and world that is dominated by meth and secrets.  Speaking as someone who still has family who live on the outskirts of the world depicted here, I can say that Winter’s Bone gets both the big picture and the little details right.  Everything from the unbreakable cycle of poverty to the defiant resilience of the people is depicted just as it is.  Make no mistake about it — the people in Winter’s Bone may not have much but they do have their pride.  It’s portrayed best in the scene where meth head Teardrop (John Hawkes) glares down the county sheriff (Garret Dillahunt), letting him know that, regardless of who is wearing the uniform, this is Teardrop’s world.

Teardrop is the uncle of 17 year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), who is considering joining the army once she graduates from high school but, for now, spends all of her time taking care of her mentally ill mother and her two younger siblings.  Her father, who is one of the county’s best meth cooks, was recently arrested and has a court date approaching.  However, he has apparently skipped bail and disappeared.  When Ree is told that, unless her father shows up for his court date, she and her family will lose their house, Ree sets out to try to find him.

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Ree, however, knows that her father would never have jumped bail and she also knows that there’s no way he died in a meth lab fire, as some people are claiming.  She knows that her father has been murdered but, unlike Teardrop, Ree has no interest in getting revenge.  She just wants to find his body so she can prove that he’s dead and her family can keep their home.  Unfortunately, even this brings Ree into conflict with the local crime boss.

Taking place on a blasted landscape of dilapidated farms, rusty pickups, and the burned ruins of abandoned meth labs, Winter’s Bone is an unusually powerful piece of Southern gothic. It’s also a film that — unlike a lot of other acclaimed movies — actually gets better with repeat viewings.  When you first see it, you’re overwhelmed by the film’s bleakness.  When it ends, you’re not sure if you should be happy or sad.  The second time, however, you can better appreciate the skill with which director Debra Granik tells her story, the way she frames Ree against the landscape as if Ree was the lone hero in a classic western and how the scenes where Ree searches for her father in a swamp are full of shadows and menace.  The third time, you can better appreciate the performances of characters actors like John Hawkes, Garret Dillahunt, and especially Dale Dickey.  The fourth time, you no longer have any doubts.  Winter’s Bone is one of the best films that you’ve ever seen.

And, through it all, Jennifer Lawrence is there and reminding you why she became a star in the first place.  She may have won her Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook and she may be best known for being the face of The Hunger Games franchise but Winter’s Bone remains Jennifer Lawrence’s best and bravest performance.  Without a hint of vanity or reluctance, Lawrence portrays Ree as a resilient and unsentimental survivor and you can’t help but cheer her on as she refuses to back down to any authority, legal or otherwise.  By the end of the film, you know that Ree is probably as trapped as anyone but you can’t help but hope that she’ll somehow find something better.

If you haven’t seen Winter’s Bone, you need to.

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