Thursday, August 14, 2014

Elements of a Great Film: No Country For Old Men

Essentially, a movie is a series of scenes. And the great movies have incredibly memorable scenes.

The Coen brothers' No Country For Old Men has  many. One standout for me is the scene in which Anton Chiguhr (Javier Bardem) is in the gas station with the unsuspecting owner near the beginning of the film. Bardem says, “What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss?” The unsuspecting fellow is confused.

“Call it," the cold-blooded Bardem says.

The man behind the counter is clueless that everything he has ever scrimped and saved for is on the line. “We need to know what we’re calling it for here,” he says.

It’s an impeccable scene that foreshadows much that is to come regarding the nature of this character who is the embodiment of relentless evil. The manner in which Bardem is eating nuts, the manner in which the camera cuts to the squashed wrapper as it unfolds, again foreshadowing the unfolding of something frightening, produces compelling cinema, storytelling in film.

A great film is also about great lines. “Baby, things happen. And you can’t take ‘em back.” Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) tells his wife once he realizes the danger she's in.

The great lines are what screenwriters live for. All the great films have great lines in them. You can hardly think of some of these films without immediately recalling a line... Films like Casablanca and The Wizard of Oz are rich with them. Quote the line and everybody knows exactly what you're talking about.

"We'll make him an offer he can't refuse." It's pure Brando.

“Houston, we have a problem.” ~ Apollo 13

“You can’t handle the truth.” ~ A Few Good Men

“Show me the money.” ~ Jerry Maguire

“Go ahead, make my day” ~ Sudden Impact

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” ~ Cool Hand Luke

Another feature of great films is casting. Not only are the main characters right for their jobs, the incidental characters are superbly selected. Casting is a strong feature of all the Coen brothers' films, and No Country is no exception.

When I first reviewed this film in 2008 I was critical of the casting of Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell and I was critical of the limited amount of screen time Woody Harrelson carried. I take back both of these criticisms now, having watched the film several times since its first screening in Duluth. At this point I can't even imagine anyone else in the role Jones played. and had Harrelson been given any further screen time it may have detracted from the film simply because he is such a compelling presence. He had to make an early departure only because this story was about the cat and mouse survival game being played out between Brolin and Bardem.

The ending may be a tad confusing for first time viewers, but the story needed to tie up a lot of loose ends quickly or it could have dragged out. The main conflicts in the film were resolved. And Sheriff Ed Tom was shaken to his core.

Another great line, from the mouth of Tommy Lee Jones: "You can't make up stuff like that."

And finally, among other things, there is the story itself. The essence of story is a moment in time in which the ordinary train of events in a character's life is shifted onto a new track. It may be something incidental, but like the railroad it will ultimately result an utterly different destination.

For Llewelyn Moss, his destiny was altered when he accidentally came across the aftermath of a shootout while out hunting in a remote region in West Texas. The former Viet Nam vet makes a decision that alters everything.

The skill with which the story is told makes all the difference in the world. The characters behave in ways that are believable. The sets, settings, pacing all conspire to keep the believability intact. A written story creates a dream in the reader's mind, and in film the dream is visually expressed, which involves risk. The Coen brothers have been pretty effective at it. Makes one wonder what will be next.

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