Thursday, November 22, 2007

A pair of Aces but you won't be smiling

Here's a fine way to kick off the blog, a look at two of the high profile, critically acclaimed crime films that were released this winter. The two films have a lot of superficial similarities; they're both about botched criminal endeavors, they're both brilliantly made and they're both incredibly bleak . Stylistically though they could not be more different. I am speaking about the gruesome two-some that is No Country for Old Men and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.
No Country is the Coen's Adaptation of the acclaimed book of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy's minimalist dialogue and elegant prose may seem to break with the more verbose Coen's (Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother and Miller's Crossing all have their share of motormouths), but the pairing is a match made in cinematic heaven. The Coen's nail this adaptation, serving both the plot and characters, while loading it with extravagant cinematic flourishes.The plot: Llewelyn Moss (having a wonderful year Josh Brolin) is a good-old-boy out hunting when he stumbles upon the bloody aftermath of a drug deal gone horribly wrong (they even killed the dog). Llewelyn recovers the money but his conscience can't leave well enough alone. He goes back to the scene of the crime to help one of the half-dead men who was begging for water and soon he's being chased by all manner of disreputable folks, the absolute most terrifying of which is Anton Chigurh (soon to be Oscar front-runner Javier Bardem). Llewelyn's fleeing girlfriend (Irish-gal Kelly MacDonald with a flawless accent) is in turn trailed by old-fashioned values personified Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (an at home Tommy Lee Jones). Sheriff Bell is desperate to find and help Moss before the Biblical showdown between Moss and Chigurh can take place. Along the way the moral decay of the world is considered by Sheriff Bell who frequently thinks back to kinder, gentler times.
If Lee Jone's character is a relic from this better, less twisted time, his antithesis is Bardem's Chigurh. With a cold dead stare, creepy Prince Valiant 'do and monster-ish gait, he is every inch a terrifying and imposing figure. He is dark, twisted and guided into making his killing blows by something as capricious as a coin toss (comic book dork irony: this schtick seems awful similar to the Batman villain Two-Face [once played terribly by Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever] whose coin toss bit was no doubt at least partially inspired by the coin flipping of Tony Camonte in Hawks' original Scarface). In a marvelous scene where he's cornered MaDonald, Chigurh flatly orders her to call a side of the coin and she desperately begs him to just let her go. There's no reason for him to kill her, his motivation has been taken from him, but Chigurh's so unflinchingly set in his destructive ways that once he's started he can't even begin to comprehend how to stop. He is the all consuming, all destroying, unfeeling end of the world.
On a technical level alone, No Country is a pretty staggering achievement. The Coen's can make the film go from contemplative to incredibly tense with unparalleled skill and guile. Passive scenes in hotel rooms become Hitchcockian nail-biters with nary a line of dialogue in sight. One scene in particular features Llewelyn finally thinking he's checked into a safe, secure motel, but just to be sure he dials the front desk. No one picks up. Cut to downstairs and the clerk who had previously been stationed there is nowhere to be seen. Only a cat and its milk saucer. Cut back to Llewelyn and we can hear foot-steps coming down the hall. Llewelyn grabs his considerable rifle and positions himself on the bed, ready for anything. Cut to POV of Llewelyn staring at the door and we see a shadow appear under the door. Everything is still for what seems like an eternity and then the shadow moves away from the door. Both the audience and Llewelyn and the audience breathe a sigh of relief. Only to gasp as the lights in the hallway are shut off and we hear those footsteps and then BOOM we're off to the races.

While there are few laughs to be had and you won't walk out of the theatre with good feelings toward humanity at all, the film is a more than worthy addition to the impressive cannon of the Coen's. Less a character piece and more a look at decay on several thematic levels, the Coen's have found a real partner in McCarty's epic. After a few lean years it would seem that the brother's have righted themselves with a grim classic crime drama that stands up admirably to the likes of Miller's Crossing, Blood Simple and Fargo.

A quick word before moving onto our second film. The foley work and sound design in No Country is astonishing. The impact of the bullets and cattle canons will make you either jump or claw at your seat. I think people sometimes forget how terrifying the sound of a gun can be but the film does not let up and indulges in some serious aural assault. A quick trip to the imdb reveals that the film's sound designer isCraig Berkey Berkey has spent a good chunk of his career working on all sorts of loud, exploding noises in some of the major studio blockbusters of the last decade (Transformers, the X-Men films etc). Berkey's work here shows he is capable of some seriously nuanced sound design that can create a serene sense of calm and then irrevocably shatter it.

The other excellent downer out now is Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Sidney Lumet, the film's director neatly personifies the term living legend. Now in his eighties, Before shows that Lumet is still capable of incredibly rich story-telling in a career where he has already won a lifetime achievement Oscar. This is not to say that Lumet has had a flawless career but ultimately his hits (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon and Network to name but a few) far outweigh his misses (Gloria, The Wiz, A Stranger Among Us). Lumet certainly knows how to shoot a botched heist and Before gives him a massive screw-up to orchestrate and circle around like a hungry vulture.
The story features Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as brothers. Both are rather put upon in their own way and both are desperate for cash. Hoffman needs it so he can give up his job as a broker and reinvigorate his married life in Rio with wife Marissa Tomei (utilizing her intense sexuality and still impressive physique to manipulate the men she crosses paths with). Hawke, a whiny loser, needs the money to earn back his self-respect and the respect of his divorced wife (the once again stellar Wire vet Amy Ryan) and their daughter. Hoffman hatches the plan to rob their parents jewelry store. They know exactly how the store operates, where the money is, which jewels are most valuable and knows that the insurance will cover the robbery. Its perfect, practically a victimless crime. Of course, things manage t go catastrophically wrong.

The story is played to the hilt by all parties involved. There are some incredibly meaty scenes here and Hoffman, Hawke, Tomei and Albert Finney as the mens' father, bite into them with relish. There is a particularly telling scene in the movie where Hawke goes to watch his daughter in a performance of King Lear. His daughter is playing Edgar who gives the denouement of the play urging members of the audience to "Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say." Oh if only the characters could heed the advice. Hoffman's character desperately wants to seem cool and collected, a ball-busting Mamet character, but the story ultimately reveals him to be just as desperate, cowardly and unthinking as his brother. Hoffman however cues us into the fact that Finney is not the saint that the film would have us believe he is, while Hawke is at first cloying and obnoxious he grows increasingly sympathetic and pitiable as the story turns downwards.
The real find here is rookie screenwriter Kelly Masterson who has crafted a deeply felt, emotionally resonant character study in the midst of a genuinely intense and gripping thriller. The film has numerous opportunities to delve into Paul Haggis-eqsue miserablism but manages to steer clear away. The script is simply too taut to get into such emo hand-wringing. There's more story to tell, we'll let the characters have their moment to assess what's going on but not much more, the stakes are too high, the engine must keep running. Masterson fractures her screenplay, playing havoc with the continuity, cutting back and forth to before and after the heist. She starts us off with Hoffman's impetus for the crime, then with no other information we're seeing it unfold. Then we cut back to a few days before. At first its jarring, but once the viewer is accustomed to it one begins to see that Masterson is peeling away layers that increasingly up the stakes and provide disturbing twists that skew the viewers perspective on what they're looking at and what they've seen.

If Before is any indication, Lumet still has plenty of verve in him to crank out a couple more small, but powerful film gems. I hope he gets the opportunity as Before is just the antidote to the bigger, more attention grabbing winter releases.

1 comment:

gi money said...

Considering Chi-scary-guy's creepy, greasy, disturbing aura, I think Moss' wife responds relatively calmly /composedly. I wouldn't describe it as desperate, begging or pleading; yet, I don't know what I would call it.