Saturday, February 23, 2008

Stellet Licht

A worthy winner of the Grand Jury prize at Cannes, 'Silent Light' is a continuation of Reygadas' work looking at love and desire, and how they put men at odds with society. Its long shots, atemporal timeframe and sparse dialogue are deliberately challenging, urging us to interpret events on a moral and spiritual level as the film asks what truly is acceptable human behaviour. Outstanding.

Shades -- and, by the end, big, unmistakable splotches -- of Carl Dreyer's "Ordet" color "Silent Light," the third and certainly most unexpected film from Mexican cinema enfant terrible Carlos Reygadas. Rep-ping an about-face in setting and tone from helmer's 2005 Cannes shocker "Battle in Heaven," "Light" tells a muted story of adultery and spiritual crisis unfolding amidst a modern-day Mennonite community. Reygadas' typically arresting widescreen visuals and the presence of non-pro actors speaking in German-derived Plautdietsch makes for an initially hypnotic combination, but the spell breaks its hold well before the end of pic's inflated running time, signaling an endurance test for all but the most ascetic arthouse auds.
Jaw-dropping opening shot -- a six-minute-long time-lapse image of a nighttime sky slowly giving way to dawn and then full-fledged daybreak -- establishes the vastness of the film's physical landscape and leaves no doubt about Reygadas' awesome abilities with the camera. Pic then segues to a more domestic tableau, as Men-nonite couple Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr) and Esther (Miriam Toews), living on the outskirts of Chihuahua, sit at their breakfast table, surrounded by their young children. They eat in relative quiet, after which Esther departs with the kids to run unspecified errands while Johan stays behind and, sitting alone at the table, slowly begins to weep.

When Johan travels to a nearby garage to pick up a new crankshaft for his tractor, he confides in a friend, Zacarias (Jacobo Klassen), the source of his woe: He has been having an affair with another woman, Marianne (Maria Pankratz), who he feels may be the love of his life. Subsequent meeting between Johan and Marianne, who he finds waiting for him in a clearing in the woods, culminates in a tastefully filmed sex scene set in a small shed where water cascades down from the roof. (As in the work of Terence Malick -- another of Reygadas' obvi-ous influences -- primal, neo-Biblical nature imagery abounds.)

Much of what follows in "Silent Light" concerns Johan's internal struggle to reconcile his deep religious con-victions with his bodily desires -- a dilemma not entirely dissimilar to the one faced by the put-upon limo driver at the center of "Battle in Heaven." He visits his father, who suggests that the devil may be responsible for Johan's predicament. We also lean that Johan has been up front with Esther about the affair from the start, though she never confronts him about it.

But despite some strikingly poetic moments -- including a haunting shot of Johan driving at night, tears faintly visible on his face as it moves in and out of the shadows -- it's generally difficult to get a bead on how Johan or Esther are feeling at any given moment, for so intent is Reygadas on exploiting these non-actors for their full Kuleshovian inexpressiveness.

As Marianne, Pankratz makes a considerably more forceful impression, and ends up creating the film's most three-dimensional character, though Reygadas' decision to keep her out of the story for most of the film's first half feels like a dramatic miscalculation. It's only late in the day that we even discover her vocation -- a drive-thru attendant at a predominately Mennonite ice-cream shop -- in what ends up as one of pic's most memorable scenes. By the time pic finally takes hold emotionally, in the final -- and directly Dreyer-esque -- Reygadas' deliberate longeurs will have become too much for many in the audience to bear.

Whereas "Heaven" and its full-frontal-assault on Mexican nationalism felt like the calculated gesture of a pro-vocateur, "Silent Light" is recognizably the work of an altogether more mature, serious filmmaker. Reygadas is clearly fascinated by the film's subjects, who he approaches with reverence and respect. Yet what Reygadas is ultimately trying to say -- aside from the somewhat reductive conceit that these people are somehow "closer to God" -- remains opaque.

Pic's extraordinary visual riches are matched by an elaborate soundscape that transforms the crunch of snow on the ground, the chirping of crickets at dusk and the lapping of water against rocks into a crescndoing natural symphony.

To mention Carlos Reygadas’ winsome Silent Light in the same breath as key directors Carl Theodor Dreyer, Andrei Tarkovsky, Robert Bresson, and the more recent Bruno Dumont is not hyperbole. The six-minute opening shot of a sunrise may sound like cinematic folly, but cinematographer Alexis Zabe (Duck Season, Child’s Play) has created a beautiful sequence that would not be out of place in the Louvre.

This striking opening also effortlessly transplants the audience from the travails of modern life into the state of Chihuahua in Mexico where a community of Mennonites resides. Reygadas, as ever, refuses to spoonfeed the audience: the only clue that the characters are Mennonites is in the fact that they speak Plautdietsch, while only the press notes confirm that the action takes place in Chihuahua.

The sparse plot involves Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr), a father of seven, who comes to the conclusion that local ice cream vendor Marianne (Maria Pankratz) may be the love of his life rather than his wife Esther (Miriam Toews). The use of long shots, an atemporal timeframe, limited dialogue, and blank-faced non-actors is purposely challenging, highlighting the need to interpret events on a moral and spiritual level. Film buffs will recognise that the central exploration of what is acceptable human behaviour, is lifted straight from Dreyer’s Ordet.

At its very best, Carlos Reygadas's new film has the richness of Malick or the transcendental simplicity of Ozu; at its occasional worst, it has the whiff of Lars von Trier. But make no mistake: this is a deeply considered, formally accomplished, beautiful-looking and unexpectedly gripping film from a director making a giant leap into the first rank of world cinema. On finally fading to black, it leaves behind on the blank screen, as if on the inside of a closed eyelid, a shimmering sense of having looked into something overwhelmingly powerful.

It is certainly a clear and satisfying development from Reygadas' enigmatic first feature Japón, and far superior to his ambitious but clumsy and overblown second film Battle in Heaven, a misstep whose silliness and shallowness it very much exposes. Silent Light has some sublime, meditative moments: moments of pure, unapologetic visual ecstasy that come close to repealing the cinematic laws of gravity.

Moving with unforced, almost geological slowness, Reygadas establishes, in a series of tableaux, the setting for a tale of forbidden love in a rural Dutch-dialect-speaking Mennonite community in Mexico, whose adherents wear the shawls and austere clothing of their northern European forefathers. The film begins with an audacious, extended shot of the sun rising, evidently achieved through time- lapse, but so slowly as to appear to be happening in real time - an impression subtly reinforced by the fading-in of the ever-present soundtrack of crickets, cicadas and lowing cattle.

Johan (Cornelio Wall) is a hardworking farmer whom we see at the beginning presiding over the saying of grace at a family breakfast. There are evidently tensions with his wife Esther (Miriam Toews); and we soon learn that he is having an affair with another woman, Marianne (Maria Pankratz) who is apparently unattached. It is a love triangle that is to cause agony and tears, but not precisely the messy anger and voluble recrimination that we might expect from another sort of movie, or indeed from real life.

Reygadas's vision is more stylised than this. The pain of infidelity is floatingly suspended in a kind of trance, but arguably this is how people can and sometimes do deal with the transgression and pain of infidelity: a reticent, middle-distance-gazing sort of trance that allows you to ignore the elephant in the living room.

I am not being entirely facetious when I say that the first mental port of call for viewers approaching this film might be Peter Weir's classic 1985 thriller Witness, in which Harrison Ford's tough cop finds himself hiding out in a Pennsylvania Amish community, and falls hard for Kelly McGillis's beautiful young widow. Many of Reygadas' group scenes of rustic peasant faces, in church, or eating breakfast in severe blondwood kitchens at the crack of dawn, do have a familiar look to them. But in Witness, the sexual transgressor was alien to the group, and recognised as such by a group of clerical "elders". Here, Johan is one of the group, is denounced by no such authority and never publicly disgraced as such, even when the affair leads to a terrible tragedy.

So there is no dramatic crisis imposed on the lovers from without, and the acting style is contained and even lugubrious - except for especially created emotional scenes - and this, I suspect, is a result of working with non-professionals. Like many contemporary directors, Reygadas has chosen not to encourage his amateurs to speak in the quick speech rhythms and overlapping dialogue of real life, but keep it as deadpan as possible. This avoids embarrassment and has a kind of consistency and formal calm.

It is admittedly a little unreal and weirdly passionless sometimes, and this is where I feel Reygadas' rather exotically imagined rural-religious community might have been drawn up with a view to camouflaging this technique. In the real world, the Mennonites probably speak quite as sloppily as the rest of us. At these points, I was also uneasily reminded of the far-fetched fictional Scottish religious sect in Breaking the Waves.

Having said all of this, Reygadas communicates in a superbly controlled cinematic idiom and conjures up a hypnotic address to the viewer. And he creates a fascinating context for a powerful exchange between Johan and his lover Marianne after they have made love for the last time. Peace is stronger than love, he tells her, and after they have given each other up, "there will be pain, then peace, then such happiness as we have never known". In the midst of his agony, Johan asks his lover, and us, to imagine a future after their love has ceased, and to have faith in it.

I'm not sure I can say quite the same thing about the ambiguously visionary miracle that Reygadas creates for the end of his movie, a miracle that occurs as a result of a form of spiritual meeting between the women: a meeting that is very much the work of a male director.

But like the rest of the film it has a terrific kind of self-possession, and shows a ringing confidence in the luminous strange world it inhabits.

The sheer ambition of Reygadas has always been startling; now he is developing a consistency, a maturity and a rigorous visual sense to match it. There are things here not to like and not to believe in, sure. But what a change from the mediocre and derivative stuff on offer elsewhere. Here is cinema to wonder at, to argue about.

I'll admit to having engaged in a fair amount of eye rolling when I first read that Stellet Licht, Carlos Reygadas' third feature, was to be a tale of adultery set in a north Mexico Mennonite community, with dialog entirely in Plautdietsch to boot. For even though Battle in Heaven made my Top Ten of 2006, it bothered me that Reygadas would once again build a film around a (potentially) controversial conceit. Yet perhaps it's fair to ask – would Japón have received as much attention without the explicit octogenarian sex? Would Battle in Heaven have landed US distribution were it not for its beauty and the beast blowjob scene? Probably not. But has it reached the point where cinematic provocation is now de rigueur for Reygadas?
Thankfully, no.

The microcosm that is the world of Stellet Licht is no gimmick, but rather the perfect stage for this passion play that is as much about spirituality and sacrifice as it is sex and love. Yet Reygadas isn't interested in ethnography – all we glean of Mennonite culture is that they are a deeply pious bunch with familial and societal roles that are both traditional and unambiguous. Reygadas sees them as archetypes, and in a recent interview explained how this enabled him to "concentrate on the essential: the love story."

On the surface we have a simple love triangle – Johan (Cornelio Wall Feher), husband to Esther (Miriam Toews) and father of six, is having an affair with Marianne (Maria Pankratz). Though completely open about the affair with both friends and family, Johan suffers a crisis of faith (is Marianne a test from god, or the devil himself?) as well as a struggle of the heart over which woman to choose. (In this regard the film shares quite a bit with Valeska Grisebach's Sehnsucht.)

As with his other films, Stellet Licht's tremendous power comes not from its narrative, but from Reygadas' aesthetics; a masterful, poetic blending of son et image. The film exists at the intersection of John Ford and Terrence Malick, what with its epic landscapes, use of shadow, and depiction of nature and the elements as almost sentient beings. (A minor character wears a highly conspicuous 'Ford Country' shirt.) Spiritually there is an obvious nod to Dreyer's Ordet, though the human drama unfolds in way that is decidedly Bergmanesque. The film opens (appropriately enough) with a breathtaking six-minute shot that is no less a recreation of the opening passages of Genesis, with its separating of light from the darkness. The silence soon gives rise to increasingly louder caterwauls of livestock, and finally we are introduced to Johan and his family, sitting in silent prayer around the breakfast table, the ticking of a clock the only sound we hear. The dawn of man indeed.

The remaining two-plus hours consist of one jaw-dropping sequence after another, yet not once does it venture into style-over-substance territory. There's a heightened sense of naturalism to it all, particularly in the relationships between the characters themselves, and the physical world in which the film is set. A scene with Johan and his family at a bathing pool is harmonious to the point of feeling more like a bit of cinéma vérité than scripted drama. A close-up extended kiss between Johan and Marianne in a field of flowers (complete with lens flare) feels almost intrusive. Still, Reygadas does add a few playful surprises including an unexpected weather reveal, and an even more unexpected appearance of Jacques Brel.

The sacrificial act that closes the film (a point of contention for some critics) is at once both a depiction of spiritual immanence (not always easy to achieve in film), as well as a testament to the selfless power of love; equal parts sacred and profane. (In some ways the film is the antipode of Secret Sunshine, but that's a topic for a separate post.) Stellet Licht has stayed with me more than any of the other fifteen films I've seen so far at the festival. A near-masterpiece that should silence detractors who view Reygadas as little more than a courter of controversy. This is a work of sheer beauty -- a film that serves to remind us why it is we love the art of cinema so much.

Monday, February 18, 2008

No Country For Old Men

There are no clean getaways.

The time is our own, when rustlers have given way to drug- runners and small towns have become free-fire zones. The story begins when Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds a pick-up truck surrounded by a sentry of dead men. A load of heroin and two million dollars in cash are still in the back. When Moss takes the money, he sets off a chain reaction of catastrophic violence that not even the law - in the person of aging, disillusioned Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) - can contain. As Moss tries to evade his pursuers - in particular a mysterious mastermind who flips coins for human lives (Javier Bardem) - the film simultaneously strips down the American crime drama and broadens its concerns to encompass themes as ancient as the Bible and as bloodily contemporary as this morning's headlines.

Misguided souls will tell you that No Country for Old Men is out for blood, focused on vengeance and unconcerned with the larger world outside a standard-issue suspense plot. Those people, of course, are deaf, dumb and blind to anything that isn't spelled out between commercials on dying TV networks. Joel and Ethan Coen's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel is an indisputably great movie, at this point the year's very best. Set in 1980 in West Texas, where the chase is on for stolen drug money, the film — a new career peak for the Coen brothers, who share writing and directing credits — is a literate meditation (scary words for the Transformers crowd) on America's bloodlust for the easy fix. It's also as entertaining as hell, which tends to rile up elitists. What do the criminal acts of losers in a flyover state have to do with the life of the mind?
Plenty, as it turns out. McCarthy reveals a soulless America that is no country for anyone, never mind old men. The so-called codger representing besieged law and order is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones with the kind of wit and assurance that reveals a master actor at the top of his game. On the page, the sheriff is a tad too folksy, dishing out cracker-barrel wisdom to his good wife, Loretta (Tess Harper), with a twinkle written into his homespun truths. As you already know by now (and In the Valley of Elah categorically proves it), Mr. Jones does not do twinkle. He's a hard-ass. And when he chews into a good line, you can see the bite marks. Here's the sheriff on how crime has gotten so out of hand: "It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Anytime you quit hearin' 'sir' and 'ma'am,' the end is pretty much in sight."

That unpretty end takes the form of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), an assassin who rivals Hannibal Lecter for dispatching his victims without breaking a sweat. Bardem, with pale skin and the world's worst haircut, is stupendous in the role, a monster for the ages. Beneath his dark eyes lies something darker, evil topped with the cherry of perverse humor. Chigurh carries around a bulky cattle gun. He'll politely ask a mark to get out of a car before he caps him in the head; that way the car won't get messy with gristle and brain matter. And he has this little game he plays. Staring at the human species like a visitor from another planet, Chigurh flips a coin. Your choice of heads or tails might just save your life. Only don't piss him off.

It's Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) who comes down hard on Chigurh's bad side. Moss is a cowboy in a world with no more room for cowboys. He enjoys teasing his wife, Carla Jean (the excellent Kelly Macdonald), but you can feel his discontent. Then one day, when he's out hunting antelope, he gets his shot at the big score. Right out there in the desert are a half-dozen dead bodies drawing flies. One man, barely alive, sits in a truck and begs for water. It's a massacre. There's also a stash of heroin and $2 million in cash. Moss takes the cash and runs. Wouldn't you? That question sets up the film's moral dilemma and puts us in Moss' boots. This is Brolin's breakthrough — he rips into the role like a man possessed, giving Moss the human touch the part needs. Moss even returns to the scene that night with water for the dying man. Huge mistake. Shots ring out, and Moss, after packing his wife off to her folks, goes on the run with Chigurh on his tail and the sheriff tracking both of them.

That's all you'll hear from me about plot. The kick comes in watching all the gears mesh with thrilling exactitude. I've heard some carping about the ending, which stays tone-faithful to McCarthy instead of going for Hollywood pow. Hmm. I thought that'd be worth a cheer. No Country for Old Men offers an embarrassment of riches. Jones, Bardem and Brolin all give award-caliber performances. Roger Deakins again proves himself a poet of light and shadow as director of photography. Carter Burwell's insinuating score finds a way to nail every nuance without underlining a single one of them. Props are also due editor Roderick Jaynes, who no one's ever seen, since he's a pseudonym both Coen brothers hide behind.

OK, then. How does No Country for Old Men stack up against the best work of these artfully merry pranksters? Near the top, I'd say. There are echoes of Fargo when a deputy declares, "It's a mess, ain't it, Sheriff?" and the sheriff answers, "If it ain't, it'll do till the mess gets here." And admirers of Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink and even The Big Lebowski will find tasty bits of bright and bleak to noodle on. But this landmark of a movie is fresh territory for the Coens, accused, often unfairly, of glib facility and lack of passionate purpose. Screw that. Not since Robert Altman merged with the short stories of Raymond Carver in Short Cuts have filmmakers and author fused with such devastating impact as the Coens and McCarthy. Good and evil are tackled with a rigorous fix on the complexity involved. Recent movies about Iraq have pushed hard to show the growing dehumanization infecting our world. No Country doesn't have to preach or wave a flag — it carries in its bones the virus of what we've become. The Coens squeeze us without mercy in a vise of tension and suspense, but only to force us to look into an abyss of our own making.

“No Country for Old Men,” adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, is bleak, scary and relentlessly violent. At its center is a figure of evil so calm, so extreme, so implacable that to hear his voice is to feel the temperature in the theater drop.

But while that chilly sensation is a sign of terror, it may equally be a symptom of delight. The specter of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a deadpan sociopath with a funny haircut, will feed many a nightmare, but the most lasting impression left by this film is likely to be the deep satisfaction that comes from witnessing the nearly perfect execution of a difficult task. “No Country for Old Men” is purgatory for the squeamish and the easily spooked. For formalists — those moviegoers sent into raptures by tight editing, nimble camera work and faultless sound design — it’s pure heaven.

So before I go any further, allow me my moment of bliss at the sheer brilliance of the Coens’ technique. And it is mostly theirs. The editor, Roderick Jaynes, is their longstanding pseudonym. The cinematographer, Roger Deakins, and the composer, Carter Burwell, are collaborators of such long standing that they surely count as part of the nonbiological Coen fraternity. At their best, and for that matter at their less than best, Joel and Ethan Coen, who share writing and directing credit here, combine virtuosic dexterity with mischievous high spirits, as if they were playing Franz Liszt’s most treacherous compositions on dueling banjos. Sometimes their appetite for pastiche overwhelms their more sober storytelling instincts, so it is something of a relief to find nothing especially showy or gimmicky in “No Country.” In the Coen canon it belongs with “Blood Simple,” “Miller’s Crossing” and “Fargo” as a densely woven crime story made more effective by a certain controlled stylistic perversity.

The script follows Mr. McCarthy’s novel almost scene for scene, and what the camera discloses is pretty much what the book describes: a parched, empty landscape; pickup trucks and taciturn men; and lots of killing. But the pacing, the mood and the attention to detail are breathtaking, sometimes literally.

In one scene a man sits in a dark hotel room as his pursuer walks down the corridor outside. You hear the creak of floorboards and the beeping of a transponder, and see the shadows of the hunter’s feet in the sliver of light under the door. The footsteps move away, and the next sound is the faint squeak of the light bulb in the hall being unscrewed. The silence and the slowness awaken your senses and quiet your breathing, as by the simplest cinematic means — Look! Listen! Hush! — your attention is completely and ecstatically absorbed. You won’t believe what happens next, even though you know it’s coming.

By the time this moment arrives, though, you have already been pulled into a seamlessly imagined and self-sufficient reality. The Coens have always used familiar elements of American pop culture and features of particular American landscapes to create elaborate and hermetic worlds. Mr. McCarthy, especially in the western phase of his career, has frequently done the same. The surprise of “No Country for Old Men,” the first literary adaptation these filmmakers have attempted, is how well matched their methods turn out to be with the novelist’s.

Mr. McCarthy’s book, for all its usual high-literary trappings (many philosophical digressions, no quotation marks), is one of his pulpier efforts, as well as one of his funniest. The Coens, seizing on the novel’s genre elements, lower the metaphysical temperature and amplify the material’s dark, rueful humor. It helps that the three lead actors — Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin along with Mr. Bardem — are adept at displaying their natural wit even when their characters find themselves in serious trouble.

The three are locked in a swerving, round-robin chase that takes them through the empty ranges and lonely motels of the West Texas border country in 1980. The three men occupy the screen one at a time, almost never appearing in the frame together, even as their fates become ever more intimately entwined.

Mr. Jones plays Ed Tom Bell, a world weary third-generation sheriff whose stoicism can barely mask his dismay at the tide of evil seeping into the world. Whether Chigurh is a magnetic force moving that tide or just a particularly nasty specimen carried in on it is one of the questions the film occasionally poses. The man who knows him best, a dandyish bounty-hunter played by Woody Harrelson, describes Chigurh as lacking a sense of humor. But the smile that rides up one side of Chigurh’s mouth as he speaks suggests a diabolical kind of mirth — just as the haircut suggests a lost Beatle from hell — and his conversation has a teasing, riddling quality. The punch line comes when he blows a hole in your head with the pneumatic device he prefers to a conventional firearm.

And the butt of his longest joke is Llewelyn Moss (Mr. Brolin), a welder who lives in a trailer with his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) and is dumb enough to think he’s smart enough to get away with taking the $2 million he finds at the scene of a drug deal gone bad. Chigurh is charged with recovering the cash (by whom is neither clear nor especially relevant), and poor Sheriff Bell trails behind, surveying scenes of mayhem and trying to figure out where the next one will be.

Taken together, these three hombres are not quite the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but each man does carry some allegorical baggage. Mr. Jones’s craggy, vinegary warmth is well suited to the kind of righteous, decent lawman he has lately taken to portraying. Ed Tom Bell is almost continuous with the retired M.P. Mr. Jones played in Paul Haggis’s “In the Valley of Elah.” It is hard to do wisdom without pomposity, or probity without preening, but Mr. Jones manages with an aplomb that is downright thrilling.

Still, if “No Country for Old Men” were a simple face-off between the sheriff’s goodness and Chigurh’s undiluted evil, it would be a far stiffer, less entertaining picture. Llewelyn is the wild card — a good old boy who lives on the borderline between good luck and bad, between outlaw and solid citizen — and Mr. Brolin is the human center of the movie, the guy you root for and identify with even as the odds against him grow steeper by the minute.

And the minutes fly by, leaving behind some unsettling notions about the bloody, absurd intransigence of fate and the noble futility of human efforts to master it. Mostly, though, “No Country for Old Men” leaves behind the jangled, stunned sensation of having witnessed a ruthless application of craft.

Life ain’t fair. Be it the sudden, unexpected death of a loved one to your boss crapping all over your cushy job by dropping a ton of busy work on you at the last second on a Friday, it’s all just not fair. But it’s also the way things go and there’s scarcely any way to control it. Such is one of the many overwhelming feelings I got after having the wind knocked out of me by the Coen Brothers (by way of Cormac McCarthy) new, masterful film “No Country for Old Men.” The film is equal parts good versus evil mixed with serial killer on the loose. Combine that with heist/caper film antics and another part…slice of whacked out life and the end result? Let’s just say it’s all amazing. “No Country for Old Men” is exactly the kind of challenge film buffs will love if you’re sick of the by the numbers, multiplex drivel. And if you aren't yet sick of that crap, "No Country for Old Men" will still keep you enthralled for two hours.

Am I fawning? Yes I am. But rarely has a film got inside my head so quickly that the second it was over, I couldn’t wait to see it again. And I won’t lie, I find the Coen Brothers to be eternally frustrating in their mastery of the visual coupled with complete bumbling disregard for solid storytelling. If anyone can tell me what happens in “The Big Lebowski” after Donny (Steve Buscemi) dies you’ve either seen the film over twenty times or you have a photographic memory. My point being, I feel like the Coen’s often lose themselves in their little visual, idiosyncratic worlds and in the end the story they’re trying to tell falls short. However I am now forbidden to ever knock the Coen’s again, even if the steady hand of Cormac McCarthy’s novel guiding the way was the cause of “No Country for Old Men.” This film, the acting and the directing are all wicked and brilliant.

A plot summary is in order, but I’ll do so quickly as my rendition of events won’t come close to what’s really going on. Local yokel Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) is out hunting one day when he comes across a drug deal gone awry. Some poking around soon finds him in possession of a large sum of cash which he quickly absconds with and hides in his trailer. Meanwhile mass murderer Anton Chigurh (Bardem) escapes from custody for the umpteenth time and resumes his bloody tromp across the U.S., annihilating anything in his path. Literally anything in his path. Chigurh is like the embodiment of the worst kind of bully, the kind that if you look at him wrong or say even slightly the wrong thing, your days could be over. But even worse, Chigurh takes his killing a step further and lets “fate” decide. Rounding out the disjointed (but becoming more and more connected) trio of lead characters is idealistic small town sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Jones) who does a fine job as local law but when the shit hits the fan, he’ll be the first to tell you he may not be the best guy for the job.

Chigurh catches the scent of Llewelyn and gets after him for the cash. Meanwhile, Bell knows Llewelyn is in over his head (hell, they both are) and sets out to find him before Chigurh or a slew of hired Mexicans do. Yet as basic as this plot sounds, the film isn’t really “about” any of that. At once a classic embodiment of good versus evil, the film also toys with audience expectations and it’s totally refreshing, if not wholly frustrating. Here, the people with the answers are usually dead wrong. The heroes aren’t very heroic and the meanies are meaner than many you’ve seen in some time. Sam Peckinpah once lamented the fact that the violence he showed onscreen was interpreted as operatic and beautiful when he meant for it to be shocking and horrific. The same mistake cannot be made here as “No Country for Old Men” is bloody and disturbing. The violence is also jarring and, well, really violent. Every person who has griped about Eli Roth’s films or the “Saw” franchise is required to see this film. But there’s even more to be seen.

Brolin, Bardem and Jones are spot-on and not in the usual way. That is to say, Jones doesn’t do his curmudgeonly old man routine and Bardem is different than I’ve ever seen him before. His embodiment of Anton Chigurh is so existentially nihilistic, evil and devoid of hardly any human element I would have found myself wondering what the actor was thinking about while in character if I wasn’t so drawn in by the performance. Josh Brolin is also excellent as the everyman hero, a guy you sincerely want to see succeed but who also seems doomed to failure. Kudos also to Kelly Macdonald as Llewelyn’s faithful wife Carla who adds sprinkles of insight to each character, lending a human touch to the whole affair.

But my strongest praise is saved for Joel and Ethan Coen who have taken a storyline from a writer as difficult to adapt as Bret Easton Ellis or Kurt Vonnegut and truly brought his words to life. Fans of the book will be floored by the near literal translation, but will also be blindsided by the Coen Brothers vision onscreen. They seem to make every element of the book come to life while also incorporating many of their signature touches along the way. “No Country for Old Men” is a return to form for the Coen Brothers and, while I feel the film will annoy and frustrate the masses, it will be looked back upon as one of the truly great movies of the first part of this new decade.

"Hold still"—it's what the hunters say to the hunted in the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men.
The first time we hear it, it's the out-of-work Vietnam vet Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) whispering optimistically to the antelope he spies through his rifle sight while perched on the crest of a West Texas ridge. A bit later, it's the steely assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) instructing the terrified motorist to whose skull he has just placed the lethal end of a pressurized cattle gun. Already by that point, not very far into the film, we know that one stands in Chigurh's way at one's usually immediate peril. In an early scene, we've seen this tall, saucer-eyed man with the Cousin Itt haircut and indeterminate accent escape from police custody by drawing a naive deputy sheriff into a choke-hold pas de deux that turns the precinct's linoleum floor into an abstract frieze of scuff marks and sinew.

"Hold still" is also something that the Coen Brothers seem to be saying to the audience throughout No Country for Old Men, which is the most measured, classical film of their 23-year career, and maybe the best. Coming on the heels of the shrill, mannered Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, you'd scarcely have thought them capable of it. There are echoes of earlier Coen films here—in the Texas setting (Blood Simple) and the idea of simple, small-town folk caught up in criminal business (Fargo). But unlike the loquacious eccentrics that the Coens have placed at the center of most of their movies, the characters in No Country for Old Men are stoic, solitary figures who feel most at home in desolate landscapes, alone but for their fellow predators. And we become one with them, seeing and (especially) hearing things as they do—subtle anomalies in the atmosphere and terrain, like the faint jangling of keys in an abandoned vehicle in a desert clearing where bad men have recently been engaging in bad business. It is to this grisly scene—a drug deal gone awry—that Chigurh journeys in search of a briefcase piled high with cash (two million in 1980 dollars). But Moss has been there first, and he left just enough of a scent for Chigurh to track.

Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men is, for most of its running time, a cleverly triangulated cat-and-mouse pursuit in which Chigurh stays a few short paces behind Moss, while the sheriff, Ed Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), closes in on them both. And if Chigurh is the movie's phantom bogeyman, then Bell is its moral compass, albeit one with its needle pointing straight to hell. A onetime believer in the forces of law and order, he has been worn down by what he sees on his beat and reads in the newspapers and has the look of a man searching for salvation in a godless world. Whether the good old days Bell pines for—the one where evil had a more easily recognizable face—ever existed is another matter entirely, one No Country for Old Men doesn't endeavor to resolve.

The mechanics of No Country for Old Men recall those of a vintage film noir—as gripping and mordantly funny a treatise on the corrosive power of greed as The Killing and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre were before it. In terms of filmmaking and storytelling craft, it is a work destined to be studied in film schools for generations to come, from the threatening beauty of cinematographer Roger Deakins's O'Keeffe-like images to what is surely the most pulse-raising scene of motel-room suspense since Marion Crane took her fateful shower. There isn't a moment here that feels false, less than fully considered, or outside of the Coens' control. (Nor does the movie ever feel studied and inert in the way movies so carefully planned and executed sometimes can.) Then there is Bardem, whose Chigurh is so fully realized psychologically and physically that his every gesture bristles with creepy fascination, whether he's baiting an unsuspecting gas-station attendant into a life-or-death coin toss or merely sidestepping the encroaching puddle of blood he's created on a hotel-room floor.

It's easy to imagine how the Coens, whose Achilles' heel has always been their predilection for smug irony and easy caricature, might have turned McCarthy's taciturn Texans into simplistic western-mythos archetypes: the amoral criminal, the righteous peacekeeper, and the naive but basically good-hearted rube in over his head. Instead, they've made a film of great, enveloping gravitas, in which words like "hero" and "villain" carry ever less weight the deeper we follow the characters into their desperate journeys. Like McCarthy, the Coens are markedly less interested in who (if anyone) gets away with the loot than in the primal forces that urge the characters forward. "They slaughter cattle a lot different these days," sighs a weary Bell late in the film. But slaughter them they still do, and in the end, everyone in No Country for Old Men is both hunter and hunted, members of some endangered species trying to forestall their extinction. Even Anton Chigurh, it turns out, bleeds when wounded

Sunday, February 10, 2008

American Gangster

American Gangster is a 2007 crime film written by Steve Zaillian and directed by Ridley Scott. The movie stars Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. Washington portrays Frank Lucas, a real-life heroin kingpin from Harlem who smuggled heroin into the US on American service planes returning from the Vietnam War. Crowe portrays Richie Roberts, a detective attempting to bring down Lucas' drug empire.[2] Filming was done on location in New York City. American Gangster was released in the United States and Canada on November 2, 2007.

Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, a disciplined and intelligent black gangster, runs much of Harlem and imparts his wisdom onto his former driver turned right-hand man, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington). Johnson dies of a heart attack in 1968, at an electronics store. Frank dislikes the new, flashy gangsters and decides to take control. To gain money and power, he travels to Bangkok, Thailand, and with the help of his cousin who is an Army Senior NCO, strikes a deal with a Chinese nationalist general in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia, who supplies him with pure heroin. Starting with a first shipment of 100 kilograms, Frank has the drugs transported back to America via military service planes. His final shipment comprises two tonnes hidden in the coffins of seven dead U.S. soldiers from the Vietnam War.

Frank’s unique drug supply enables him to sell potent drugs (“Blue Magic” heroin) at low prices - undercutting his competition which, the film suggests, is largely heavily cut (diluted) heroin stolen and redistributed by corrupt narcotics police officers. He quickly makes a fortune and buys several nightclubs and apartments. He moves his family from North Carolina to New Jersey, where he purchases a large estate for his humble mother. His five brothers are enlisted as his lieutenants in the NYC drug trade – forming “The Country Boys,” who work together to traffic and sell dope on Harlem streets. During his rise, Frank meets and falls in love with Eva, a Puerto Rican beauty queen. Through his discipline, organization, and willingness to kill those in his way, Frank quickly rises to the top of the Harlem drug and crime scene.

Meanwhile, Newark, New Jersey detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is juggling a failing marriage, late-night law school classes, and his police career. When Richie and his partner, Javier Rivera, discover nearly $1 million in unmarked bills in a car, Richie resists temptation and turns the money in. His rare honest ways make him a hated member of his precinct, causing his partner to be exiled from the force, while Richie's rampant womanizing behavior leads his wife to seek a divorce and custody of their son. After his exiled partner dies from overdosing on Blue Magic, Richie's honesty catches him a break when his superior Captain Lou Toback (Ted Levine) puts him in charge of a newly created task force to stop drug trafficking in Essex County, New Jersey and New York City. Richie handpicks honest cops and gets to work on finding who is supplying Blue Magic.

MANOHLA DARGIS in the New York Times

Greatness hovers just outside “American Gangster,” knocking, angling to be let in. Based in rough outline on the flashy rise and fall of a powerful 1970s New York drug lord, Frank Lucas, the film has been built for importance, with a brand-name director, Ridley Scott, and two major stars, Denzel Washington as Lucas, and Russell Crowe as Richie Roberts, the New Jersey cop who brings him down. It’s a seductive package, crammed with all the on-screen and off-screen talent that big-studio money can buy, and filled with old soul and remixed funk that evoke the city back in the day, when heroin turned poor streets white and sometimes red.

This being an American story, as its title announces and Steven Zaillian’s screenplay occasionally trumpets, there’s plenty of blue in the mix too, worn by some of New York’s very un-finest. Mr. Lucas was among the city’s most notorious underworld hustlers, but one of the film’s points (at times you could call it a message) is that he was just doing what everyone with ambition, flair and old-fashioned American entrepreneurial spirit was doing, including cops: getting a piece of the action. His piece just happened to be bigger than most, stretching across Harlem and snaking into other neighborhoods, into alleys and apartments where someone with ready cash and a hungry vein was always aching to get high.

You see a few of those veins, popping, all but jumping in anticipation of another hit. Sometimes the needle slides into a clean arm, though every so often the camera comes uncomfortably close as a spike jabs into a suppurating wound. You could call these images metaphoric, something about the oozing, bleeding body of the exploited underclass, but mostly they’re just graphic evidence of the damage done. Despite the intermittent nod to someone nodding out and even dying, this isn’t about the suffering of addicts or of those forced to watch their neighborhoods perish alongside them. It’s about good guys and bad, a classic story of white hats and black squaring off at the corral at 116th Street and Eighth Avenue.

Mr. Crowe, his jaw thrust forward as aggressively as his pelvis, wears the white hat, while the silky, smooth-moving, smooth-talking Mr. Washington wears the black. They’re irresistible, though neither possesses the movie because each occupies a separate if parallel story line. Mr. Washington has the more developed and dynamic role, which he inhabits easily, whether flashing his wolfish grin or draining the affect from Lucas’s face to show the soulless operator beneath the swagger and suit. Lucas’s rival, Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr. in a sharp, small turn), wore the pimp threads and fedoras the size of manhole covers (he also read Machiavelli). Lucas dressed like the businessman he believed himself to be and was.

Formally, the plot takes the shape of a simple braid, with Lucas’s and Roberts’s stories serving as individual narrative strands that become more and more tightly plaited. Complicating this simple, at times overly mechanical back-and-forth design is a third player with a smaller strand, a corrupt New York detective, Trupo (Josh Brolin in a knockout performance), who shakes down Lucas and other larcenous types. The baddest bad man in town, a thug’s thug, Trupo wears his power as confidently as the long black leather coat he whips on for battle. He hassles Lucas, who hates him in turn, and openly indulges his contempt for Roberts because the other cop is honest, which means he’s a threat to Trupo and his kind.

It’s hard not to fall for these men pumping like pistons across the screen, which is as much part of the movie’s allure as its problem. Mr. Scott doesn’t escape the contradiction that bedevils almost every Hollywood movie about gangsters, which cry shame, shame, as they parade their stars, crank the soul and showcase the foxy ladies, the swank digs and rides. Mr. Washington obviously enjoys sinking into villainy, but he never finds the lower depths. There’s little of the frightening menace the actor brought to “Training Day,” where you see the pleasure his character derives from his sadism. Even when Lucas goes ballistic, beating a man to pulp, the film tosses in a laugh about the proper way to clean a bloodied rug.

Seriousness has always been one of Mr. Scott’s strengths as a director, but when his material has skewed too light, too frivolous, the gravity and purpose etched into each one of his meticulous, beautiful images have also helped sink films. He couldn’t make an ironic gesture if he wanted to, or toss off an idea or a shot. Everything counts, even if it shouldn’t. (Such was the case with his and Mr. Crowe’s last collaboration, their 2006 Provençal folly, “A Good Year,” a soufflé made with lead.) Mr. Scott makes the case for his and his new film’s seriousness in its opener, which shows Lucas tossing a match at a man who has been doused with gasoline and then pumping bullets into the burning, screaming figure.

This is the match that ignites the story of a criminal overlord who, without mercy or remorse, takes down one human being after another, many of whom, like the addicts he supplied, were as helpless as that burning man. By rights this match should also ignite a tragedy, and you can almost feel Mr. Scott trying to coax the material away from its generic trappings toward something rarefied, something like Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 definitive American story, “The Godfather.” He comes closest to that goal with the suggestion that the lethal pursuit of the American dream is not restricted to one or two families — the Corleones, say, or the Sopranos — but located in a network of warring tribes that help to obscure the larger war of all against all.

The America in this film isn’t a melting or even a boiling pot; it’s a bitter object lesson about the logic of market-driven radical individualism, wherein a self-styled Horatio Alger type, thwarted by racial prejudice and born into poverty in North Carolina, grows up to become a powerful captain of the illegal-drug industry. Lucas pulls himself up by his bootstraps, a gun tucked into his belt, and becomes a folk hero (and a pop culture idol) who doles out free turkeys to the very community he helps enslave with narcotics, fear and despair. He gathers his relatives around to help him, modeling himself after the Mafia families with whom he does business. He builds a gang, but only so it can serve his personal desires.

The bottom line of what a Frank Lucas does — to people, to neighborhoods — doesn’t make for entertainment. And so, despite Mr. Scott’s talent for trouble and shadows (the cinematographer Harris Savides bleeds all the bright color from this world), he soon loosens his grip on Lucas. He lingers over the garish surfaces and violence, and the exotic locales where Lucas found a steady supply of pure heroin. He quotes “Super Fly,” fires up Bobby Womack, samples Richard M. Nixon and tosses in a pinch of black power rhetoric to mask the rot. He distracts and entertains until the divide between his seriousness of purpose and the false glamour that wafts around American gangsters, and invariably trivializes their brutality, becomes too wide to breach.

Like many moviemakers (and watchers), Mr. Scott loves his bad guy too much. And by turning Lucas into a figure who seduces instead of repels, an object of directorial fetishism and a token of black resistance, however hollow, he encourages us to submit as well. Part of this is structural and economic: blood and nihilism are always better sells than misery and hopelessness. Yet there’s also a historical dimension, because when Lucas strolls down a fast-emptying Harlem street after putting a bullet into another man’s head and the camera pulls back for the long view, you are transported into the realm of myth. Once, another gunman, or the director, might have taken direct aim at Lucas. But the world belongs to gangsters now, not cowboys.