Like their native Minnesota, Texas provides Joel and Ethan Coen with the desolate landscape their sardonic worldview requires. One is wintry and the other is arid, both stand equally for a bleak world that mocks and shrivels its dwellers: Blood Simple and Fargo are their most characteristic works, No Country for Old Men, their latest, fuses them. Adapted from Cormac McCarthy's novel, its setting (Texas, '80) is a crumby purgatory, the plot unfolds in vast expanses of howling wind and blanched skies, motel rooms and blood trails -- the narrator (Tommy Lee Jones' Sheriff Bell) is weary of the horrors he has witnessed, and this is before the Reagan years! A taciturn 'Nam vet, Moss (Josh Brolin), stumbles upon a desert massacre, complete with dead dogs, a truckload of drugs and the inevitable valise of $100 bills: Moss is in a way the story's center, fully adapted to the hopeless universe yet with a few moral impulses left in him, and his taking the dirty money is no less a "dumber than hell" act than later on bringing a bottle of water to a dying man in the deal gone awry. On his trail are two extremes, humanity in all its frail decency along with its Bizarro twin -- Sheriff Bell is old-time morality overwhelmed by new shapes of evil, Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is a relentless killing machine who has turned the act of shooting people in the head into some kind of purified private ethos ("principles," someone says). Because Chigurh likes a little mental torture before trotting out his pneumatic cattle gun, much is made of the cosmic caprices of death, God's pitiless silence, etc. If Bell is the film's conscience, Chigurh is its superstar, and a fellow hit man (Woody Harrelson) understands he's part of a new breed: "Plenty of them around."
On its way to becoming the decade's most overrated movie, No Country for Old Men has already been compared to everything from Greek tragedy to the Old Testament. There's no denying the Coens' concentration here, particularly after Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers: It is a spartan, sinewy work, possibly their most perfect so far, with Roger Deakins' photography evoking an ineffably expressive flatness and the filmmakers' penchant for derisive grotesquerie mostly staying out of the way of the story's implacable forward push (nothing is as disruptive as Jon Polito's tilted wig in The Man Who Wasn't There). Despite its adaptation status, this is practically a summarization of Coens conceits, and there lies its main problem: All theme and no life, the movie is like a skeleton without flesh, and it rattles around in the big canvas of ponderous Meaning it sets up for itself. The Chigurh character perfectly embodies this puffed-up ambition -- designed as one of the "signs and wonders" bemoaned by Bell, the Grim Reaper in a Beatles mop-top, he's really just some peevish bad-guy out of Diamonds are Forever asked to shoulder the weight of a pernicious metaphor. A stupendously crafted exercise, unquestionably, and one hopes the beginning of a whole new phase in the Coens oeuvre. Yet I can't help think that the people heralding it as just about the greatest film of all time are simply having their own bleak notions cannily fondled by the Coens' worldview, where goodness is often equated with stupidity and death (and, therefore, life) is random and meaningless. A masterpiece? If this really were the highest form of cinema possible, I sincerely wouldn't have loved the medium the way I have all these years.
Richard Kelly's Southland Tales remains an immeasurably lesser achievement than No Country for Old Men, and an immeasurably more likable one. The difference is not between mature restraint and youthful splurging, but between finicky determinism and woolly exploration. Few are claiming masterpiece status for Kelly's follow-up to Donnie Darko, which has lost close to a half hour since its premiere at last year's Cannes Film Festival -- it's an apocalyptic blitzkrieg set in the very near future (the 2008 elections), with an army of pop-saturated kooks battling it out in Venice Beach; the sanest characters are an amnesic, action-flick musclehead (Dwayne Johnson, quite good) and a bronzed porn star/talk-show host/radical activist (Sarah Michelle Gellar, even better), which gives you the spirit of the thing. This is the type of self-indulgent folly that brings T.S. Elliott, Robert Frost and L. Frank Baum to the gangbang and plays a thousand mini-movies at once, each more strenuously wacky than the other: Miranda Richardson as a Red State Mabuse before her wall of monitors. Wallace Shawn as a painted munchkin supplying "Fluid Karma." The Meeting of the Self enacted by Stifler. Justin Timberlake and "All These Things That I've Done" in the arcade. Cheri Oteri and Jon Lovitz miming seriousness. Kevin Smith as an Operation: Iraqi Freedom Santa Claus. If this ends up closer to Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back than to Mulholland Dr. (or even to Skidoo), it still has the galvanic pulse of a filmmaker trying things out, failing, and trying again. (Amy Poehler voices Kelly's mantra: "Transform... Believe... Dream.") I wouldn't want either No Country for Old Men or Southland Tales with me on a desert island, but, to put it simply (and simplistically), one feels dead to me while the other feels alive.
In Killing Zoe, Roger Avary had somebody wax poetic on Viking movies: "Those helmets with the fucking horns, man!" Beowulf, a Viking yarn which Avary co-wrote with Neil Gaiman, could use a bit of that self-aware silliness -- aside from the threat of the titular warrior's reportedly huge wang being unleashed and poking its audience of teenage fanboys (in 3D, baby!), it's the Old English poem ponderously, gracelessly expanded into an epic bore that's almost as much of an eyesore as 300. Robert Zemeckis is the conductor of this bipolar express, which means that technology will trump story, character, and emotion: "Performance capture," the digital-rotoscoping, flesh-to-pixel process the director tried out in his 2004 Yuletide creepfest, here molds the actors (Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn, Crispin Glover, John Malkovich, Alison Lohman) into runaways from the Shrek series, all splotchy skin, dead eyes, and jerky movements. Whether or not this is "the future," it is still not worth even a minute of Jason and the Argonauts -- take the dragon battle and Angelina Jolie as a Circe with stripper stilettos for feet, and send the rest back to the lab.
Reviewed November 24, 2007.