Saturday, November 17, 2007

No country for good movies

Do you ever go to a movie you have good reason to believe you are going to hate? Not me, at least not normally. But I was pretty sure I would not like No Country for Old Men and I went anyway.

Why? It’s still hard for me to understand. I knew going in that it was a pointless, violent movie and I don't like pointless, violent movies. On top of that, I had read the book and hated it. I’m not exaggerating. I didn’t feel wishy-washy about it. I didn’t just “not like” the book. I genuinely hated it. If Cormac McCarthy is a serious novelist, then No Country for Old Men is one of the worst books ever by a serious novelist. Not that it is poorly written. McCarthy is an excellent wordsmith and the narrative is innovative and well structured. But it’s a monumentally stupid story in a Hollywood action movie kinda way.

It is one of those “super bad guy” stories. You know the kind I mean? Like The Terminator only less believable. In No Country for Old Men a very odd looking guy is on a killing spree in a remote part of west Texas. He walks around in public carrying a shotgun with a big honkin silencer, he kills cops, he kills random motorists, he kills Mexicans by the dozens, he walks into a Dallas skyscraper and guns down a big businessman, he blows up a car and robs a drug store in broad daylight, he gets in extended gun fights in small Texas towns--he couldn't be more fucking obvious--yet the police never come close to finding him, no one seems to call the cops during the gun fights, the cops don’t notice on their own that gunfights are happening on Main Street, they never put out an APB, no road blocks, the feds are not called in, strangers are not questioned, they don’t even take fingerprints. Only Tommy Lee Jones makes an effort. And all Jones does is whine. He doesn’t do anything that might actually help catch the killer.

Is there a point to any of this? In the book, it’s hard to find one. The movie, as bad movies tend to do, tries to tack some meaning on at the end, but it’s not particularly deep or insightful.

As I said, I knew all this going in yet I went to see it anyway. Why? I still haven’t figured it out. Normally if I know I’m going to see a film, I make it a point not to read the reviews. But in this case I’d read the book (and hated it) so I made an exception. Although the reviews were generally glowing, nothing in them made me think the movie would be significantly different than the book. Essentially they said it was a smart, very well-made and acted film that was true to the novel.

And yes, I agree with that. Just as the book is very well-written, the movie is very well-made. The screenplay, the direction, the cinematography, the acting--all first rate. Unlike the typical “super bad guy” movie, the filmmakers clearly respect the intelligence of the audience. There are numerous examples where we are left to figure things out for ourselves solely based on subtle visual clues.

But ultimately, all the great acting, direction, writing and cinematography in the world cannot rescue a plot that is essentially hollow. Maybe there's some kind of lofty joke that the story is as empty as the landscape, but that would be even more pathetic.