Tagcoen brothers

Burn After Reading

Spoilers.

This is a difficult movie. I laughed pretty hard through a lot of it, except where I was wincing. Sympathetic wincing, not angry wincing. The Coens are not in the business of making movies that are easy to figure out, and they don’t do open access. This is like that.

A lot of the criticism of this movie revolves around how unlikeable the characters are. Filmspotting talked about the Coen tendency to mock stupid characters. There’s no doubt that most of the protagonists are dumb and/or cold and/or malicious, but I don’t think I can write the movie off as an exercise in mockery.

Frances McDormand and, oddly, George Clooney saved it from that. Clooney’s performance is really way overmannered — for most of the movie. After sleeping on it for a couple of days, though, I’ve come around to thinking that was purposeful. Clooney isn’t a great actor, but he’s a smart actor, and he can do subtle. Watch what he does with the character after he kills Brad Pitt. I think what we’re seeing is someone who’s overacting because the character overacts. The scene where he calls his wife and begs her to come home? That’s someone stripped of his pretensions, and I think Clooney played it perfectly. Not to mention the symbolism of destroying his own phallic substitute sex toy; he’s destroying his own facade right there, poor guy.

His earlier lines about his quick reactions and his, ha ha, “I’ve never discharged a firearm” are the set up. On first glance, that’s part of the fakery. Those are his lines which he uses to get laid. But the Pitt death shows us a) that he does have really good reflexes and b) that he really hasn’t fired his gun in anger before. That’s the hook demonstrating that there’s a person underneath it all.

McDormand’s role is less complex. It wasn’t hard at all for me to sympathize with her. Yeah, she does horribly stupid things, but she’s intensely lonely. Richard Jenkins humanizes her in a wonderful performance by letting us see why someone would love her. To a degree, she’s a monster — but with someone as decent as Jenkins emotionally involved with her, you can’t write her off as nothing but monstrosity.

So I do wind up — not liking them, but at least wishing them redemption. The arc of the movie brings them together, then thrusts them apart. They’re definitely the centerpiece. And in the end, of course, they’re the protagonists who get out of it all alive. If not happy.

With that in mind, it’s another tragedy. It’s just that the Coens have no scruples about tragic movies overlaid with brutal humor.

No Country For Old Men

I saw No Country for Old Men weeks ago, and it’s taken me this long to come to grips with it; or to at least find an entrance point for discussion that made sense to me. I spent a while musing on the nihilistic nature of the movie. My first draft of this noted “family counts for nothing except danger, and the monsters are not destined for jail time.”

But that’s not true. I’ve seen nihilistic movies. A truly nihilistic movie ignores consequences; the crop of Tarantino/Besson-influenced movies come far closer to nihilism than No Country for Old Men. Consider Snatch, in which the protagonists are pretty completely immoral but walk free at the end. I liked Snatch but there’s about zero morality in the whole thing.

No Country for Old Men is full of morality. The gut punch of an ending wouldn’t be powerful if it wasn’t full of morality. Chigurh is a monster, and the movie makes no bones of that fact, and he’s expected to meet his fate at the end. Sheriff Bell is his counterpart in morality, occupying the benevolent side of the Western drama. Or, perhaps, Moss will bring justice — he’s not a good person per se, but he does represent the sanctity of family. You don’t mess with a man’s family.

And then the trapdoor opens, and then the ground is gone from underneath us. It’s not nihilistic, it’s darker. Consequences do matter, but sometimes they don’t work out. This is what makes it such a strong conclusion.

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