The Movie Club

Still Not Convinced by No Country for Old Men.
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 3 2008 6:30 PM

The Movie Club

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Ratatouille. Click image to expand.
Ratatouille

Guys:

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

I hope when I'm gone, even my enemies will mourn me longer than Nathan weeps for the giants of high-modern cinema ("Really revere your work, Ingmar … not!"). And I wonder about his claim that nostalgia is unique to film criticism: Isn't the persistence of cultural memory, that Gatsby-like tendency to be borne back ceaselessly into the past even as the future roars in on us, something that's inherent to the critical enterprise? I know I see a similar dialectic in music writing all the time. At any rate, I won't speed the moldering of Sembène's corpse by either championing or piling on to Southland Tales, which struck me as a wildly imaginative, intermittently brilliant journey up its creator's own ass. (Not unlike—and here I'm really going to get in trouble—David Lynch's freaky, seductive, infuriating self-released odyssey Inland Empire. Lynch just happens to have a more compelling ass.)

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Wesley, I'll take up your thrown gauntlet on No Country for Old Men (or "No Place for Old Folks," as I will forever think of it thanks to Scott's dad's fortuitous rechristening, which could have come straight from the mouth of Tommy Lee Jones' laconic sheriff). Not because I didn't like the Coen brothers' movie, but because I do think it's been overpraised (unlike the luminous Ratatouille, which truly will outlast us all, at least long enough to be the Snow White of the 22nd century). No Country succeeds in the way Javier Bardem's pneumatic cattle-gun succeeds in annihilating his victims: It blows a hole in our brains, over and over again, without explanation, and then asks us to walk out going, "Wow, that was quite a hole you blew in my brain. Thanks."

Mind you, I'm not objecting to the movie's violence; I dug many films that gushed derricks of blood, from There Will Be Blood to Before theDevilKnows You're Dead to Sweeney Todd (though I wish Burton hadn't slashed Sondheim's score with such Sweeney-like glee). But there's a depressing sadism in the Co-bros' relation to their audience—not the sly, teasing sadism of Hitchcock when he kills Janet Leigh in the first reel of Psycho and upends our notion of what a thriller should be, but the dead-eyed sadism of Bardem's Anton Chigurh himself, when he fucks with that gas-station attendant for the sheer hell of it. When Wesley says it's a shock to see a Coen movie that lacks condescension, I think he means condescension toward the characters (a common fault line through the rest of the brothers' oeuvre). But I found that No Country (which, again, I admired as a piece of moviemaking craft) toyed with its audience like Gabriel Byrne toyed with John Turturro in Miller's Crossing, pretending to execute us for an unconscionably long time before doing us in for real.

And quickly, about endings: I love Scott's observation that No End in Sight, the title of Charles Ferguson's formally staid, quietly incendiary documentary, stands as a fitting emblem for the many films that concluded in irresolution, ambivalence, or suspension, or simply spiraled into a place too dark to see (Before the Devil, No Country, Sweeney Todd, and, of course, The Sopranos).I'm of the camp that puzzled over the comic-histrionic coda of There Will Be Blood, not sure how its departure in rhythm and tone—not to mention the sudden appearance of a bland adult actor in the key role of the oilman's son, so wonderfully played up till then by the nonprofessional child actor Dillon Freasier—flowed from what came before. I wish P.T. Anderson himself would chime in with a post on what he was trying to do there. But I don't have a simple rewrite in mind for the ending, nor do I think that it subtracted significantly from the movie's crushing greatness. Slate's Timothy Noah does, and he plans to write something to that effect for the magazine this week. When he does, maybe we can bring him into the conversation.

Love and rockets,
Dana

P.S. to Wesley: I was somehow able to feel Todd Haynes' balls through the slippery fabric of I'm Not There. I thrilled to the movie's intellectual vibrancy, its gorgeous, obsessively detailed costume and production design, and Cate Blanchett's uncanny, almost mediumistic act of transformation. But the movie didn't make my top-10 list for a reason: Haynes' rigorous formalism is an acquired taste, and even for those who've acquired it, the balance among the six parallel storylines was wildly uneven. That Richard-Gere-as-Billy-the-Kid segment kind of blew, and I don't mean in the wind.