Stuck on No Country for Old Men

This happens every decade or so. I will see a film, and — for a whole host of reasons — get stuck on it.

On first viewing,  the story unfolds, crafted elegantly and with meticulous attention to story and character.  After that, when the basics of the story are no longer a mystery, one exquisite element after another is revealed with each viewing.

Sometimes it turns out that  the story was even more perfectly crafted than I thought. After all, great screen writing is not conspicuous and ingenious narrative structures don’t typically telegraph their arrival.

Sometimes the cinematography or the color pallette or production design is so sublime, so perfectly integrated with the narrative, that it begs to be appreciated again and again.

And sometimes the acting so perfectly serves a scene or a story or the development of a character that  individual scenes can be profitably watched again and again.

And so here I am, stuck on No Country for Old Men, the masterpiece by Joel and Ethan Coen.

As was the case with other films that have “trapped” me — their  film Fargo, Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, Coppolla’s Godfather trilogy, and Scorsese’s The Departed and Goodfellas ,  Fellini’s Amarcord — the first viewing was a total immersion in a coherent whole. I  was not thinking about its elements. I was living the work.  Nothing can recreate that initial thrill of reveling in a complete work that is too carefully assembled to be seen as fragments.

But then the puzzle pieces begin to reveal themselves. And I am stuck.

A terrifying scene with Javier Bardem and Gene Jones. Lonely highways and cheap motels, photgraphed by the brilliant Roger Deakins, the dark night frequently punctuated by the blinding brightness of neon signs or oncoming headlights.  A haunting, gravelly narration by Tommy Lee Jones.  Craig Berkey’s sound design, a breathtaking symphony of creaking doors, wind, grunts, and scratches.  An almost unbearable sense of foreboding. And as much sadistic and cruel menace as the Coens have ever put in one film.

Yup, I’m stuck. And it is absolutely hypnotic.

Chris Cooper. Narrator? Yup, And a Great One Too!


My default position on narration in documentary film is almost always negative, especially when it is used as an amateurish substitute for skilled cinematic storytelling. But I don’t have a hard and fast rule, and sometimes a few strategically placed, eloquent words fit seamlessly into a narrative. For the most part, though, I am a fan of wordless ”narration” that tells a story with meticulous and rhythmic editing.

Of course, all bets are off in first-person documentaries. When these films are done well, (far too seldom) the narration is precisely the point. I think of the films of Alan Berliner, Doug Blank,  Ross McElwee, and Elizabeth Barret.

In  Elizabeth Barret’s Stranger with a Camera,  narration rises to the level of sublimely beautiful poetry.  Barret — one of my favorite filmmakers — uses her own voice and creates a truly haunting meditation on life, loss, memory, and the ethics of the visual image.  I confess that I deeply admired her film for almost two years before I noticed that much of the narration had been written by Fenton Johnson, an accomplished  Kentucky novelist.   I hope you can see this great film and hear Elizabeth speaking Johnson’s remarkable prose and what I am sure were many of her own words.

Tonight I had a surprise. I was watching an episode of PBS’s American Experience about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. I didn’t immediately recognize the voice of the narrator, but it was so understated and mournful that I knew I was not listening to your average voiceover artist.  It was almost a new genre,  something you might call historical oral theatre.

Then I realized that it was Chris Cooper, one of the finest actors working today. You may have seen him in Adaptation or Capote. Like any brilliant actor, he knows instinctively that less is almost always more.  But please listen to his narration if you have a chance. This was stunningly beautiful work and  showed how a great actor like Chris Cooper can turn  prose into poetry.

Finally, if you want to hear another remarkable example of the use of a narrative voice in film,  listen to Tommy Lee Jones speaking Cormac McCarthy’s poetic prose in Ethan and Joel Coen’s “No Country for Old Men.”

The list of Chris Cooper’s accomplishments, already long and packed with one masterful performance after another, has to include this little recognized use of his voice.  Check out Barak Goodman’s  The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Ah, The Joy of Being Terrified by Two Great Actors: Gene Jones and Javier Bardem


A Brilliant Performance

Gene Jones: A Brilliant Performance

Early in the Coen Brother’s No Country for Old Men, Javier Bardem — playing a sadistic killer — faces down a meek, old gas station owner, played brilliantly by Gene Jones.

The result?

One of the best written, acted, and directed scenes of relentless menace that I have ever seen.

Two men in an old gas station.

See this piece in the LA Times about the actor Gene Jones, who in several minutes delivers a brilliant, electrifying performance.