Before seeing a screening of No Country for Old Men, the new movie by Joel and Ethan Coen, I decided to read the book by Cormac McCarthy. One, because I haven't read any fiction in years and I figured this would give me an excuse to read a novel, and two, because I get so nervous in thriller movies that I wanted to find out how things turn out in the end before seeing the movie. (There is a twist in the narrative and the Coen's are faithful to the book.)
But once you know the twist, half of the fun is gone. (Do movies like The Sting or The Sixth Sense ever get better with repeated viewings? Not for me.) I didn't care for the book, which is written in a minimalist style that I found pretentious, but it felt as if the Coen's could have written it themselves. It's right up their alley and the book reads like a screenplay.
The movie is skillfully made. There is some vivid imagery (Roger Deakin's photography is often stunning) and wonderfully tense moments. The Coen's use sound very well--the sound of a rotary dial phone, the squeak of a suitcase; in fact, several sequences don't have any music at all. There are familiar Coen touches--tracking shots of the open road from a car's point-of-view, ceiling shots looking down on a sleeping character, grotesquely funny-looking yokels, voice-over narration, goofy haircuts, dry dialogue and inside jokes (Mike Zoss Pharmacy--Mike Zoss is the name of their production company).
The movie is terse, and brutal but I thought it was empty. It's like a B-Movie made with A-Movie talent. There isn't much pulpy fun in it, despite the trademark Coen humor. It takes itself seriously in that it portends to say something heavy about human nature (Maybe it's just another bleak film noir--the Coen's never take themselves too seriously, but the movie felt too serious). As a friend who recently saw the movie said, "it slams you up against the wall and there is no room for your imagination to roam."
When it was over I just thought, "Why? What's the point?" I'm sure the Coen's have their reasons--again, the material is so well-suited to their tastes that perhaps they just couldn't turn it down.
I won't be surprised if the movie turns out to be one of the Coen's biggest commerical hits. But it reminds me of Silence of the Lambs, another technically well-made entertainment that felt soulless. (I don't think Demme has ever recaptured the funky spirit that infused his early movies like Melvin and Howard, Something Wild and Married to the Mob.) This movie isn't a departure for the Coen's, but it feels like an excercise in style. It looks great and delivers thrills, but, again, when it was over, I just shrugged my shoulders and was like, "And...So...?"