Sunday, November 11, 2007

No Country For Old Men

About a month ago, a friend of a friend saw this at a SAG screening and said it was one of those rare films where you just sat there stunned while the credits rolled. I second her "stunned" and add an "unredeemed" or two. If you've read the book, you know what's going to happen, and it's a lot worse than you pictured it. If you didn't read the book, you are probably going to sit there feeling like your mom got hit by a car just after she promised you an ice cream cone. In other words, y'know, just like you read a Cormac McCarthy novel.

We'll get back to the book vs. movie debate in a minute, but the key to what the movie does to you that the book doesn't is contained in the two images to the left: the original novel cover, which leaves a lot to the imagination, and the movie poster cover of the novel, which doesn't. The first cover raises no expectations; the second one raises a whole bunch which the movie (like the novel) totally subverts. In other words, if you don't sit there at the end of this movie feeling like you were robbed of something, then you are one of those rare mortals who watches popular entertainment with a totally open mind.

Not me. Watching the film, I was surprised by all the laughter. A lot of it is nervous laughs (a motel scene with gunshots in one room and reaction shots in another room has a lot of those), but since any kind of laughter makes you like the person who's making you laugh, even a bad guy (hello, Richard III), you become invested in what happens to him. And because it's Cormac McCarthy, good luck with that rooting for the good guy thing, pal.

As a Coen Brothers movie, this is Miller’s Crossing good. Everybody in this is fantastic, from Javier Badem and his mountain range of a face to where-do-I-know-her-from Kelly Macdonald (Trainspotting; Tristram Shandy). But the two stars are Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones. And that use of the word “stars” is where the movie and the book part company.

Basically, because Brolin’s not a star yet, you have no idea whether he’s going to survive the movie. And because Tommy Lee Jones is a star, you know exactly what is going to happen. Except that it doesn’t. Twice.

Not to spoil it too much, but there’s a major confrontation that does NOT take place, even though we want it, and expect it. (And when Brett Ratner does the remake in 20 years, we’ll get it.) But it isn’t in the book (which says one thing quietly) and it isn’t in the movie (which says something else very loudly).

I have to believe, because it's so faithful to the novel, that the Coen Brothers did this deliberately. Because the way your expectations are thwarted, the way you feel sucker-punched at the end, is just how you feel at the end of the novel, only 20 times stronger because it’s a movie.

Be warned. You will not walk out of this movie feeling “That’s how the story ends.” You’ll walk out feeling “That’s how life is.” And it's the rare movie that can make you do that.

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