THE BACK PAGES

Through a glass darkly

It’s the best year for movies since the '70s—and as bad guys rule, that era’s outlaw spirit is back

Brian D. Johnson November 19 2007
THE BACK PAGES

Through a glass darkly

It’s the best year for movies since the '70s—and as bad guys rule, that era’s outlaw spirit is back

Brian D. Johnson November 19 2007

THE BACK PAGES

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Through a glass darkly

film

It’s the best year for movies since the '70s—and as bad guys rule, that era’s outlaw spirit is back

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Profound compassion and grave concern for the fate of America are not sentiments that leap to mind when you think of the Coen brothers. You think of a leg being fed into a wood chipper in Fargo. Or a coffin serving as a life raft for a trio of ex-cons floating past a cow marooned on a roof in the flood waters of O Brother Where Art Thou? Joel and Ethan Coen are known for dark comedies barbed with smartass wit and cruel irony. But their new movie shows a startling maturity. Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men has all the noir trappings of classic Coen pulp fiction—a drug deal gone bad, a suitcase of cash, a psychopath leaving a trail of bodies in the motel badlands of west Texas. Joel Coen considers it the most violent film he and his brother have made. Yet it’s also the most contemplative, and the most powerful. Their finest work since Fargo, it finally expands on the dark promise of their 1984 feature debut, Blood Simple. Here, the blood pools across an epic landscape, and this shrewd contemporary western congeals into another kind of movie altogether—an ominous portrait of a country at a moral impasse.

When the Coen brothers begin to lose their cynicism, you know that America is in some deep trouble. No Country For Old Men belongs to a new breed of movies fired with an urgency that has not been seen in American cinema since the ’70s. In fact, 2007 is shaping up to be the best year for movies since that decade. And the best of them look like they’re from the ’70s. We tend to look back on those years as the last golden age of American cinema, before the industry was colonized by superheroes and special effects. With titles like The Godfather, Chinatown, Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter, it was a time when movies mattered.

Now, as in the early ’70s, America is mired in an unpopular war. Once again the big screen is crowded with dark, politically charged

dramas of outlaws and anti-heroes shadowed by paranoia and conspiracy. And many filmmakers are consciously aping ’70s style—characterized by sprawling narratives, raw realism, moody camera work, a sense of landscape as character, scads of sex and drugs and violence, and dialogue that’s apt to detour into a meditation or a manifesto.

Some of these movies dramatize true stories that took place in the ’70s. We’ve seen two epics about crime legends from the era—Zodiac’s obsessive investigation of a cryptic serial killer, and American Gangster’s Godfather treatment of a Harlem drug lord who milked

the Vietnam War for heroin. The year has also produced two renditions of rock legends— Control, about Joy Division singer Ian Curtis and his sad descent to suicide; and the upcoming Fm Not There, a cubist portrait of Dylan with six actors approximating Bob.

In other cases, the influence of specific films from the period is transparent. Michael Clayton rewires the anti-corporate rant of Network (1976), reinventing the mad broadcaster as a flipped-out lawyer. In the Valley of Elah grafts the Vietnam vet sentiment of Coming Home (1978) to the Iraq war, lifting a plot device from The Conversation (1974).

The Brave One pays homage to Taxi Driver (1976), casting Jodie Foster as a Manhattan vigilante. Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, the tale of a disastrous amateur heist, channels the reckless rage and angst of Lumet’s own Dog Day Afternoon (l975). And the frontier intimacy of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford carries plangent echoes of Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973).

Peckinpah’s menacing tone also seems to pervade the Coens’ new film. “For me, No Country for Old Men was like a Peckinpah movie,” says its cinematographer, Roger Deakins. “It has the feel of a period piece—but then the contemporary world intrudes. I especially thought of Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), where the characters still live by the rules of the past and are out of touch with the modern world.”

No Country is set in 1980, but for much of the movie you’d never know it. The west Texas border country, and its characters, have a timeless quality. Josh Brolin stars as the laconic Llewelyn Moss, a Vietnam vet who looks like a Marlboro Man and lives in a trailer park. While hunting, he stumbles across a pickup truck surrounded by dead men, with a load of heroin and $2 million in the back. He makes off with the money, setting off a declension of killings as he’s tracked by a psychopath trickster named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the ultimate man in black. Anton carries around a tank of compressed air that he uses to blow holes in people’s brains. With Zenlike calm, he’ll toss a coin to decide the fate of a random stranger. And as the carnage mounts, an aging

sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) investigates with a weary fatalism, baffled by this unknown terror that stalks the land like a biblical scourge.

The bloodshed is brisk, brutal and un-glorified. It’s the opposite of Tarantino violence. “To me the violence in this film is so human,” Brolin told me in a recent interview. “You’re incredibly disturbed by it. When a character dies, he just dies. That’s how it happens in life. My mother hit a tree in a car and that was it. That’s real. It’s not a great Hollywood manipulated moment.”

In another interview, Bardem, who is the film’s embodiment of brutality, confessed a physical aversion to firearms. “When they were giving me these guns, God, I could barely hold them,” said the Spanish actor. “But this is a story of people trying to use violence to resolve things and realizing it only destroys things. One of the reasons I said I want to do

this movie is when they say ‘no country for old men,’ I see no world for old men—old men in the sense of values and ethics. That is an important message in a culture of guns. The White House, with this a-hole, creates wars to impose power, and violence creates horror, like we’re seeing in Iraq.” The Coen brothers would never be so uncool to admit they’ve made an anti-war picture. But “that’s my interpretation,” affirms Bardem. “Otherwise I couldn’t watch the movie.”

Hollywood didn’t exploit the Vietnam War until it was over—with The Deer Hunter in 1978 and Apocalypse Now in 1979America’s war on terror has been rushed to the big screen much faster, unfiltered by the prism of hindsight. By the end of 2007 it will have generated half a dozen dramatic features: A Mighty Heart, In the Valley of Elah, The Kingdom, Rendition, Redacted and Lions for La??ibs. Many of these films are so white-hot with outrage, and so on-message, they have the subtlety of a suicide bomb. One exception is A Mighty Heart, Michael Winterbottom’s vérité masterpiece, which manages to dramatize the ordeal of a terrorist victim without demonizing the culprits. And Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of

Elah shrouds its anger in an elegiac grace, with No Country’s Tommy Lee Jones playing another wily sage finding an unfathomable horror in the dust of the American Southwest.

By contrast, Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs, which opens this week, is a didactic monstrosity. Its contrived narrative intertwines three related scenarios. In Washington, a powerful Republican senator (Tom Cruise) pitches a scoop about a bold new military strategy in Afghanistan to a skeptical journalist (Meryl Streep); on a California campus, a political science professor (Redford) tries to persuade a disaffected student

The Coen brothers would never be so uncool to admit they’ve made an anti-war picture

to show some commitment; and in the mountains of Afghanistan, two soldiers—former students of the professor who enlisted out of idealism—are cornered by enemy insurgents. Jammed with facts and arguments, the dialogue hammers away at us like a rigged panel discussion. It’s fascinating to watch Streep scramble to etch some realism into her lines as she acts circles around Cruise—archly typecast as a political Top Gun grooming himself for the presidency. First Streep is an evil CIA honcho in Rendition-, now she’s the last hope of liberal journalism, bummed out by Washington spin, celebrity-obsessed media and hot flashes. Busy girl.

Scripted by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Lions For Lambs is a verbal corollary to The Kingdom, his war-on-terror action movie.

And it’s just as jingoistic, balancing red and blue viewpoints in a patriotic cocoon, while the “enemy,” and the rest of the world, remain a faceless cliché. Brian De Palma’s Redacted, opening next week, is no less crude in its agitprop mission to dramatize a real-life atrocity by American troops in Iraq. But at least it has the decency to examine the toll of the Iraq war on non-Americans.

These issue-oriented dramas are, in the end, unlike movies from the ’70s. They don’t have much time for art, which requires mystery as well as meaning. The torment of our time is more eloquently expressed in films that are not so closely tied to the headlines. You can see it in a wave of crime films that muddy the line between right and wrong—and in the Cain-and-Abel conflicts that inflame Eastern Promises, We Own the Night, Jesse James and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. And for a sobering view of America’s role as policeman to the planet, look at the epidemic of complacent, corrupt and murderous cops in movies like Elah, American Gangster, and Ben Affleck’s impassioned directorial debut, Gone, Baby, Gone.

As director and star ofLions for Lambs, Redford—former golden boy of Hollywood liberalism-spells out his desperation all too literally. For a contemporary equivalent to All the President’s Men, the 1976 movie that minted Redford’s image of rugged integrity, Zodiac is a far better example. Too long and complex to be popular, David Fincher’s procedural feat of investigative journalism chronicles an intricate hunt for a real-life evildoer who remains elusive and mysterious. A ghost. He could be the predator played by Javier Bardem in the Coen brothers’ film, an embodiment of terror on an alien frontier where heroes learn they are fallible, and the bad guys are still standing when the smoke clears. Nowhere is that landscape more haunting than in No Country For Old Men. On the darkening horizon of American cinema, it may well be the movie of the year. M

STEYN/BESTSELLERS

Mark Steyn will return next week. This week’s bestsellers’ list is at www.macleans.ca/books