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.

Supporting Actors? Character Actors? How About Just Actors? Pt.#2


In March, 2008, I posted a short piece about character actors.  Then, as now, I was uneasy about terms like “character” or “supporting”  that even unintentionally diminish the contribution that these performer can make to a film. 

I was thinking about this recently as I listened to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s  director’s commentary on the DVD of his masterpiece The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen).  (Yes, I respect the term ” masterpiece.”   No,  I don’t use it promiscuously.)  When I first watched the film, I didn’t know the work of many of the actors with small parts.  But I could tell that something unusual was happening, that each of them was contributing something profound and well beyond what is usually expected from someone with three or four lines. 

That is why it was so fascinating to hear von Donnersmarck  talk about how he cast these roles. Apparently, the parade of actors with small parts in that film was a veritable treasure trove of great German actors. Von Donnersmarck told of apologetic call after call that he made to  these highly respected actors, apologizing for offering them a small part and simultaneously trying to convince them that their role would be central.  His argument was that these are among the most important casting decisions made by a director.

I couldn’t agree more.

So here is my second, admittedly selective,  listing of actors  with small roles who  I think were arguably indispensable to the films in which they appeared. In some cases, they are actors who have played major roles in their home countries but generally smaller roles in films that are widely distributed in the United States.

Louis Guss

Frank Sivero

Ned Glass

Patricia Hitchcock

Margo Winkler

Gene Jones

Bert Freed

Michael K. Williams

Volkmar Kleinart

Sophie Okonedo

Irfan Khan

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.