Far and away the greatest benefit to being a relatively infrequent movie watcher is almost never watching a bad movie. I tend to get upset and offended at the time wasted to watch your average Hollywood action flick or romantic comedy, so I shy away from films as they hit the theaters, wait for the hype to die down and see what offerings get some props from reviewers I dig and have a little staying power.
Such was the exact process that brought me to Into the Wild and No Country For Old Men these last couple days and I reckon I have little in the way of anything but compliments. Talk about your simple, yet powerful movies - compelling stories, dialog that seems real-to-life as well as insightfully quotable and beautiful camera work. There isn't much more that's similar about the two films, so I reckon I'll move on in the order I saw them.
Sean Penn has been such a powerful presence in the last couple films I've seen him in (Mystic River and 21 Grams) that it's no surprise he's moved over to directing. He seems to be a deliberate detail-oriented director, taking a heavy hand (he wrote the screenplay as well) in the production as a whole, and really drawing the most out of the material. I doubt Penn will be a frequent director; instead he seems drawn to the unique story that plays out here.
Despite having heard a good bit about the film before hand, I was under the impression that it was mostly about the journey in Alaska. I'm glad that wasn't the case - it's more like Into the Great Wide Open than Into the Wild and that's for the best. Whether he's Christopher McCandless or his chosen name of Alexander Supertramp, the protagonist is driven by movement and experience, not simply the need to rush as far as he can from society. In truth he makes his biggest leap away from society not by trekking into the Alaskan wilderness but in that first moment he makes up his mind that he doesn't need money, or a home, or a job, or anything that ties him to anything else. It's that over-the-next-horizon restlessness that defines his character, no matter the horizon.
Emile Hirsch was a great choice for Alex, bringing a believability to his restless idealogue. He didn't spout the nonsense you might expect from a just-barely-on-his own kid. He wasn't constantly coming up with new justifications and rationale for his wanderlust. His philosophy was simple and mostly unchanging - the trappings of society are simply traps and the measure of a life is in the experiences of the individual. But he did - tragically - misjudge how crucial simple fellowship can be. It's something that he came to eventually and it's ultimately the story's greatest sadness that he didn't get to live out his years with that addition to his world view. Alex was no misanthrope, though he may have come across as one. In truth there's really no good word for his take on society. He loved his fellow travelers, the souls more at home on the fringes of society, and ultimately found as much strength in them as he did in the wilderness, though the realization was slow in permeating his restlessness.
On a final note, the music in the film was every bit as great as some friends have said. Eddie Vedder provides another way of reading the character and the action, much in the same way that Badly Drawn Boy uses the language of music to say things in About A Boy that the filmmakers just couldn't get to otherwise. Taken one by one, the songs are all quality, with an acoustic yet full sound that fits the landscapes of the film. But taking note of the lyrics, we see more parallels in Alex's journeys and a new dimension emerges.
Music is such a central part of Into the Wild that it was fascinating to follow it up with a film that had absolutely no music at all. That quietness to me translated incredibly well as space, in a variety of ways. It let the empty Texas landscapes stand even more imposing, more immense. It let the characters' inner thoughts play a role in the film, whether you had a decent guess what those thoughts were (as in the case of Josh Brolin's Llewelyn Moss) or whether they were as inscrutable as the darkness (as in the case of Moss' nemesis-by-chance, Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh).
I didn't even notice the lack of music until one of the film's most suspenseful moments, where the ominous strings should have been. And it was no less suspenseful for the absence. People breathing, floor boards creaking, shadows covering doorways... all of this is real, all of it is in the moment, on the screen, and none of it needs an extra bit of manipulation. Kudos to the Coens for going against the grain there.
I've been a Coen brothers fan for years and years, but for some reason have stuck to just the comedies. There's little in No Country for folks looking for the fingerprints of the geniuses who created The Big Lebowski, et al. But the dialog is the tell. That's probably the greatest strength of each Coen film I dig - a richness of dialog that never seems forced, giving each character a uniqueness, full of lines you want to jot down and remember, with not a bit of it contrived or fake or in any way detracting from the movement of the story.
The story is cut of all fat, and because of that requires quite a bit of trust of the filmmakers. It rattled me at first, left me wanting the back stories of Moss and Chigurh, left me wanting to know who the drug dealers were who got gunned down in the Texas desert. I needed that at first, wanted to dig into each character to learn how to read the angles, but none of it was there. It was simply a mess dropped right in your lap and ultimately I think it was fitting. The $2 million and gun battle fallout just dropped on Moss. Moss just dropped onto Chigurh. And the whole mess just dropped onto Tommy Lee Jones sheriff Ed Tom Bell, just as mess after mess after increasingly larger and alienating mess had been falling on his for his whole life as a Texas lawman.
That slow sense of the world spinning out of control, of events running your life instead of the opposite, of a growing and desperate helplessness, is a theme I'm often drawn to, in movies or books or music. It's Yeats' "Turning and turning in the widenying gyre," rewritten with a homicidal maniac, an in-over-his-head welder and an aged sheriff, all dancing about on a chaotic parquet of drug trafficking, greed raining from all angles and blood lust.
While it's damn good, I can't say No Country is my favorite Coen film. It's abrupt and once you accept its main assertion that the world is fucked, the narrative elements lose a good bit of their significance. But I am pushed to explore the earlier Coen films. And I'm definitely going to start reading some Cormac McCarthy.