Thursday, March 13, 2008
2007 Film Roundup, Part 2: The Top Eight
There Will be Blood: I've always liked writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's work, but it tends to feature brilliant, wonderful scenes within uneven wholes. Still, he's not shy about experimenting, and he's a consistently interesting filmmaker. There Will be Blood is easily his most complete, mature, and powerful work to date. It opens with a harsh landscape and dissonant swelling tone in 1898 as we watch prospector Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) trying to carve his fortune out of the ground. As the film progresses, we watch Daniel claw his way ever higher, with a sharp mind and drive that even Milton's Devil would admire. After gaining some success as an oil man, he's approached by a young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), who wants money in return for tipping Daniel to good oil property. After threatening Paul about the consequences of any double-cross, Daniel decides to pay and check out the tip, taking his young son H.W. with him, using the pretense of hunting for quail. He confirms that there's oil there, and pitches buying all the land to the townsfolk. His most formidable adversary is Paul's twin brother Eli (Dano), a local preacher with a revival, faith-healing, demon-exorcising style. Both Daniel and Eli take each other's measure, and both view the other as a snake oil salesman. The battle between them provides at least five truly great scenes, featuring plenty of fascinating subtext and some interesting power shifts, either between scenes or within them. It's juicy, first-rate stuff.
While There Will be Blood works very well as an allegory about feuding forces of entrepreneurial capitalism and religious fervor in America, it works even better as dramatic, human battle between Daniel and Eli, and still better as a character study of Daniel Plainview. Daniel Day-Lewis is always great, but this may be his best performance yet, and it's one for the ages. Some people feel he's too mannered and over the top, but I feel he's so remarkably grounded and intense he pulls it all off. When he goes on about that milkshake, I want to offer his some fava beans and a nice Chianti, but Day-Lewis' performance has the weight and manic, violent energy to make it captivating. I find him absolutely riveting throughout the film, and at times a bit terrifying, especially when he threatens a businessman and a couple of supposed allies. While Dano isn't quite in Day-Lewis' league — who is — he's still very good as Eli, whose normally calm mien works well off of Daniel's scheming energy. And Eli, too, can 'bring the crazy' and does, in several key moments.
Anderson tends to pad his films a bit too much, and here I felt the scenes with Henry Brands (Kevin J. O'Connor), who claims to be Daniel's half-brother, dragged a bit. O'Connor has an odd, drowsy energy, but it works pretty well for the film. There Will be Blood is a film almost bereft of women, but Daniel's relationship with Henry raises crucial issues of trust and intimacy that grow more acute as the film progresses. By the time Daniel's living in a big mansion, cut off the land where he wrought himself, he also becomes more unhinged. Some critics have invoked Citizen Kane, and that comparison works best for these end scenes, but for much of the film the more apt comparison may be Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
I also have some reservations about the music. I appreciate that Anderson understands the power of sound, but there are times (as in Punch-Drunk Love's percussion-scored scene) where I feel he cranks it up to 11 and overdoes it, because the sound becomes obtrusive. It'll be interesting to watch the film again in 10 and 20 years to see how it all plays. Still, there's no doubt that the score, comprised of pieces by Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood and some great classical works, creates a strong mood and is at times extremely effective. Similarly, the film uses the landscape superbly, one of the great strengths of the western genre (as I mentioned before, this film can be viewed as an unconventional one). The prolonged climatic scene is unforgettable, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, including its (arguably) triple entendre last line. Overall, There Will be Blood is a great film and superb exploration of the American mythos. I'm looking forward to watching this one again, and what Anderson produces next.
(Here's Paul Thomas Anderson on The Treatment, and Anderson and Paul Dano's sessions on Fresh Air. If you can catch the session Anderson and Day-Lewis did on Charlie Rose, definitely do so.)
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le papillon): Probably the most lyrical film of 2007, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a true story, based on the book of the same name by Jean-Dominique Bauby ("Jean-Dou"), a successful French magazine editor who suffers a sudden stroke and comes down with the rare "locked-in syndrome." His mind is perfectly lucid, but all he can physically manage initially is to blink a single eyelid. His other eye even has to be sewn shut to protect it from infection, an event covered from a troubling first-person perspective (as are many of the scenes in the film). Apparently, no one thought the book could be adapted for cinema, but they reckoned without veteran British screenwriter Ronald Harwood, American director Julian Schnabel, and a fine French cast. The situation naturally makes for a powerful meditation on mortality and purpose, but the film also bounces from current reality to memory to imagination. The Diving Bell is the body of Jean-Dou, but his mind is the butterfly, flitting around at will, and sometimes seemingly of its own accord. One of my pet peeves is that when many people (including film students) talk about something being "cinematic," they mean spectacle. I'd argue being "cinematic" actually means using the unique power of the medium, which certainly can entail spectacle, but also can mean the visual and aural poetry that The Diving Bell... exemplifies, helped in this case immensely by Janusz Kaminiski's cinematography and Juliette Welfling's editing. Jean-Dou plunges into despair at several points, but is blessed to have a number of simply angelic women to aid him in his recovery, help him keep his sanity, occasionally confront him for self-pity and generally, bring him comfort through their kind, human connection. While all the actresses are great, my personal favorite was Marie-Josée Croze as Henriette (pictured above), whose patient, warm smile somehow makes Jean-Dou's hellishly frustrating situation more bearable. It is she who laboriously teaches Jean-Dou how to communicate through blinking, and then teaches others the method.
Meanwhile, after seeing Max von Sydow slum it in his periodic schlock of Rush Hour 3 in 2007, it's a real treat to see him here as Jean-Dou's father. He's only in two scenes, but in the second scene especially he's simply wrenching (he really is one of the all-time greats). I also should note that the film certainly has its moments of humor, as well. This is more an exploration and celebration of life than some disease-of-the-week tearjerker. I appreciate that artist Julian Schnabel takes such an unfettered approach to this potentially challenging material, and it'll be interesting to see what he produces next. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a truly beautiful film, and it's hard not to be moved by it. It's better to see this on a big screen if at all possible, but if you're up for the subject matter, it is well worth the time to seek out this one.
(Here's Julian Schnabel on The Treatment. His Charlie Rose segment was also fantastic, if you can find it.)
Michael Clayton: As was the case with many of the best films of 2007, Michael Clayton didn't burst over with flashy camera moves, and neither did it have a particularly tricky or original plot. It just did what it did damn well. George Clooney gives what's probably his best dramatic performance to date as Michael Clayton, a worldly, cynical lawyer who's a "fixer" for a high-priced law firm. He faces his biggest challenge in Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), his firm's lead counsel, who's defending a big corporation from a potentially crippling, image-destroying, pesticide negligence lawsuit. Arthur's bipolar, off his meds, and experiences a crisis of conscience, leading him to go Howard Beale and spout divine madness and truth during a deposition, which jeopardizes the case. Michael likes Arthur, but he's also got a job to do, and when Arthur goes missing, the pressure from the corporation's top gun, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) ratchets up on Michael. On top of that, both Michael and his brother have gambling debts, and Michael is struggling to reconnect with his young son. The machinations get more and more twisted, Michael's own crisis of conscience grows more acute, and the stakes increase as Michael's life may even be in danger. This is screenwriter Tony Gilroy's first feature as a director, and I always gotta pull for the writers, not that it's hard here. Many critics compared Michael Clayton to some of the great 70s flicks for its fairly straightforward but elegant visual style and meaty performances. In a year without Javier Bardem, Wilkinson probably would have won an Oscar. I don't think he's ever given a bad performance, but he's electric here, and sets a great tone with a frenetic narration to open the film. There aren't many actors who can pull off intoning, "I am Shiva, the God of Death." Karen is quite the head-case herself as played by Tilda Swinton. We're made privy to her private insecurities and then her game face in public. This is very much a film about propriety and keeping up appearances, though what's going on underneath can be very dark indeed. Sydney Pollack can play lawyer roles in his sleep, but he's good as Michael's boss, sometimes paternally kind, sometimes paternally stern. Still, I think what Michael Clayton delivers best is one hell of a climatic scene. The dialogue's sharp and sometimes startling, the energy crackles, but the end is just immensely captivating and satisfying. The film overall is good, but it's the strong finish that really sets it above the pack. It'd be nice if Hollywood could make more films like this again.
(Here's Tony Gilroy on The Treatment, and George Clooney on Fresh Air.)
Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days (4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile): This Romanian film from writer-director Cristian Mungiu justifiably won the Golden Palm at Cannes and a number of other awards. It's 1987 Romania in Bucharest, and dictator Nicolai Ceausescu has (beginning in 1966) outlawed not only abortion, but birth control, nominally to increase the population, but with little regard for the practical consequences. University student Otilla (Anamaria Marinca) sets out to help her roommate Gabriela (Laura Vasiliu) get an abortion. It's not only illegal, it's highly dangerous, since women can be maimed or die due to the unsafe, back alley version of the procedure. Otilla must also juggle her boyfriend Adi (Alexandru Potocean), who can't understand why she can't attend his mother's birthday party that night. As carefully as Otilla tries to plan the whole thing, obstacle after obstacle arises. The title hold great significance to the plot, because the stage of Gabriela's pregnancy affects the procedure the abortionist Domnu Bebe (Vlad Ivanov) will perform, as well the penalty he can face if caught (murder versus abortion) and thus, the price he will charge. Four Months… is shot mainly in wide shots and long, uninterrupted takes. There's no score, with the only real music coming over the ending credits. These cinema verité choices work to powerful effect, particularly in an extended scene with Bebe that's the centerpiece of the film. The acting is so subtle and naturalistic, and the camera style so unobtrusive, the film often feels like a documentary. This realism adds tremendously to the tension, because we feel these are real people facing actual, dire situations, with Otilla and Gabriela terribly desperate and vulnerable. Otilla's relationships with Gabriela and Adi become severely strained, but that may be the least of her problems if they're discovered or something goes wrong. Horror films typically use heavy montage and startling sound effects, yet Four Months… manages to be more tense than many a horror flick with the reverse aesthetic. It's more gripping than many a conventional thriller, especially because you'll become extremely invested in the bright, resourceful but beleaguered Otilla, and the outcome of each new conflict really matters. Never preachy but building in quiet power, this is a truly great film. As with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Once and some other 2007 entries, Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days also demonstrates the versatility of the medium and the unique power of cinema.
(I'll add that while Romania of the 80s as depicted certainly has some differences from the Moscow of the 90s when I briefly studied there, many of the rhythms, aesthetics and cultural touches felt very familiar. Meanwhile if you listen to Cristian Mungiu on Fresh Air, one of the striking features is that he actually had more chilling real life stories he could have used.)
Once: There's a scene in Once that nicely encapsulates the audience experience. The band is in a studio, recording over the weekend, and a jaded engineer works the knobs in the booth, chatting absentmindedly on the phone. As the band really gets going, though, the engineer sits up and starts paying attention. This is something different. Even if this isn't your sort of music, you're liable to be won over by the film, and quicker than the engineer. I've read one lukewarm review, but pretty much everyone else who saw Once loved it and has actively recommended it, with good reason. As Glenn Hansard said at the Oscars, it was made for about $100,000 in three weeks. It's a "small" film, all very unpretentious and charming in its simplicity and sincerity. The characters are simply called "Guy" and "Girl." The leads aren't actors, but Glen Hansard has an innate charisma, Markéta Irglová has a sweetness, and both are very natural. As with Four Months…, Once feels like a documentary or Neorealistic flick at times. Parts of it are based on Hansard's own life, since he did indeed busk as a street musician in Dublin. It's hard not to like a guy who's singing his heart out to an empty street at night, has a sense of humor about his own misfortunes, and who, as an early scene shows, is really too generous for his own good. Hansard's music reminded me the most of his fellow Irishman Damien Rice (apparently, they've toured together). While I'd say Rice is a better songwriter and stronger singer, both of them go all out when they're performing. Once is not actually a "musical" as some people have called it; it's a film about musicians, but you don't need to be a musician to appreciate it. Who hasn't had a dream and needed a little push from his or her friends?
(SLIGHT SPOILER) Some critics felt the ending veered on the sentimental side, but I'd have to say Hollywood would have made it far sappier and less open-ended, and I'm willing to forgive a little sweetness at that point. The truth is, the normal studio development process doesn't produce films like this. You can't fake this sort of authenticity. Writer-Director John Carney, a band mate of Hansard's in the Frames, has a lovely feel for the material. It's no surprise he's a musician, since some of the scenes and transitions flow very smoothly, with real sound slipping out at times for some quiet music at just the right point. It's not a conventionally "pretty" film, but that adds to the realism. The entire movie has the casual, intimate feel of an extended Sunday afternoon jam session. It's the sort of film that earns all its good will, and it's hard to hear the music afterward without thinking warmly of the matching scene in the movie. Go in expecting a small, unflashy film, but do check it out.
(Here's Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová in Concert for NPR. UPDATE: If you're a fan of the movie at all, definitely listen to this Fresh Air interview from 5/1/08 with Hansard and Irglová.)
Gone Baby Gone: Few films stuck with me last year the way Gone Baby Gone did. Based on a Dennis Lehane novel, as was Mystic River, Ben Affleck's first feature as a director isn't visually that flashy, but it's quite assured. What really stands out is the strong ensemble and the great feel for the Boston subcultures into which private detective Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck, Ben's younger brother) plunges. When Amanda, the young daughter of Helene McCready (Amy Ryan) is kidnapped, it's all over the local news. Helene's brother Lionel (Titus Welliver) and his wife Bea (Amy Madigan) want to hire Patrick because they know him from when he was a kid, and he knows the neighborhood. Patrick's girlfriend and partner, Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), is reluctant to take the case because she fears that if they fail to find Amanda, or if something really bad has happened to her, it might devastate Angie. But it's because she's got this soft side that after meeting the family, she's hooked. Unfortunately, Helene's been holding out details, and it becomes increasingly clear she's no contender for mother of the year, and her friends are no better. As Patrick digs for answers, some of the old crowd resent him and try to pick fights. While Patrick's bright, as a tough, Boston-Dorchester kid he's also a scrapper. He sometimes takes some risky moves, and the stakes grow when the investigation leads to a local drug dealer, gangs and even a pedophile. Meanwhile, the cops are required to share information with Patrick, but neither Detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) nor Captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) like him all the much, and are more than happy to take a stern, paternal line with him. As Doyle, who lost a daughter in a horrible kidnapping-murder years ago points out, the odds of recovering Amanda are slim and keep getting worse with time.
The plot takes some genuinely interesting and unexpected turns. Just when you think you've got a character or the real story figured out, a new piece of information is added, and the whole thing shifts a little or completely pivots. All the performances are excellent, with Casey Affleck an offbeat but compelling lead and Monaghan endearing as usual. Oscar-nominated Amy Ryan is memorable as the gritty, increasing loathsome Helene. Welliver as Lionel and Madigan as Bea are strong as well, and when you've got Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman filling out supporting roles, your cup runneth over (I think it's some of the most interesting work both men have done). Still, what really makes Gone Baby Gone linger for me is the tough moral situations. Will they recover Amanda? If they do, is Helene a fit mother? Patrick in particular is faced with two very tough moral choices. I won't give them away, but the decision he makes on the first one strongly affects his decision on the second one. And personally, I think he makes the wrong call on the second one. Gone Baby Gone is not an easy or uplifting film, but as with the other films in this tier, this is filmmaking for adults, and it's very good. Ben Affleck is by all accounts a very nice guy, but I think he's got a fairly narrow range as an actor. If he can continue to make films like this, I'd love to see him continue to write and direct, because while he's no rookie to the film biz, this is an extremely promising directorial debut.
(Here's Casey Affleck on Fresh Air.)
Zodiac: Zodiac unfortunately got a bit lost in the shuffle of 2007 films when it came to awards. It's not for all tastes, but some viewers will find it extremely compelling. Based on real events and loaded with a staggering amount of detail, the film centers on the hunt for the Zodiac, a serial killer in the San Francisco area during the 60s and 70s who became a local media sensation. The Zodiac killer himself is compulsive and odd, sending messages and ciphers to the San Francisco Chronicle and other papers, threatening to kill someone else if his messages are not printed. But if he's compulsive, so too are the men hunting him down —as is director David Fincher. Zodiac as a result is one of the best documents of obsession on film. The central trio are particularly superb: Jake Gyllenhaal as young Chronicle editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith, Robert Downey Jr. as ace Chronicle reporter Paul Avery, and Mark Ruffalo as police detective David Toschi. Toschi is an especially fascinating case, since this is at least the third time he's been depicted in some fashion on film. He was the basis for the fictional Bullitt, played by Steve McQueen, and Dirty Harry's Scorpio killer is based on the Zodiac killer. One of the wilder scenes in Zodiac involves a special screening for the police and Chronicle staff of Dirty Harry, which Toschi feels compelled to walk out of, noting that it's a lot easier to take out the bad guy with no due process (and it's pretty damn refreshing to hear a cop talk about civil liberties!).
Zodiac doesn't feature many violent scenes, but the murders it does show are genuinely disturbing. They're all the more striking because Zodiac's victims seem so innocent and oblivious to their danger. Meanwhile, one of the major impediments to pursuing the Zodiac for the cops is the different jurisdictions involved and varying levels of technology; San Francisco has a "facsimile machine," but the other police stations don't. Evidence doesn't get shared or is delayed, there may be a copycat killer, and the Zodiac may be claiming credit for additional murders he didn't commit, throwing off the trail. Fincher doesn't use many trick shots in this one, and the CG is mainly limited to background mattes, blood spatter and a few other sequences. This film is really about the people, and putting us back in the period. Although the film is mainly talking heads, all the actors are so committed to the reality of the enterprise, and their characters are so committed to discovering the truth, the film is surprisingly gripping throughout its 158 minute running time. The first half focuses more on Toschi and his partner Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards, who's excellent) and on Avery, a cocky, funny, quirky reporter who develops an increasingly nasty drinking habit. One of the best details from real life occurs after Avery unwisely suggests that the Zodiac might be a homosexual in one of his columns. The next threatening Zodiac mailing is addressed to… Avery. The Chronicle staff responds by passing out and wearing "I Am Not Paul Avery" buttons. Meanwhile, the cops have to sift through every crazy crackpot who thinks he or she has a lead or even claims to be the Zodiac. They eventually zero in on a few strong suspects, and memorably interview one, but they still can't make a case.
The second half of the film focuses on cartoonist Robert Graysmith, who picks up the trail, working on a book about the Zodiac. 'Imagine if Garry Trudeau went after the Son of Sam,' was apparently the gist of screenwriter James Vanderbilt's pitch. Graysmith really makes for an offbeat hero, scrupulously honest, a bit socially awkward, and utterly obsessive, keeping stacks and stacks of case material everywhere (in real life, he even kept boxes of papers on one of his stove burners!). After reading the script, the real Graysmith apparently said something like, 'Oh, now I see why my wife divorced me.' Zodiac features one of Downey's most enjoyable performances, one of Ruffalo's best, but Gyllenhaal is given the heaviest load, and he bears it superbly. He attacks his reams of dialogue with gusto and we can see his mind working. He's completely in the moment, and so caught up in the chase as an audience we're dragged along in his wake. Graysmith's often oblivious to his own danger, stalking the Zodiac in his bright orange Volkswagen Rabbit. That finally hits home in one of the most creepy sequences of the film, when he goes alone, at night, in the rain, to meet a contact (played unnervingly by Robert Fleischer) at the man's house.
Zodiac has an impressive cast even in small roles. The cops and their experts include Dermot Mulroney, Elias Koteas and Philip Baker Hall. Clea DuVall is memorable in her one scene. John Carroll Lynch is pretty creepy as one of the key suspects. Brian Cox, who excels at playing pompous asses, is great as blowhard celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli. Finally, Chloë Sevigny as Melanie does a fine job with what Fincher and everyone else involved call a thankless role. (Well, they and we appreciate it. Thanks, Chloë.) If you're into obsessive detective-puzzle stories, this one's for you!
(Extra notes: Donovan performs the song "Hurdy-Gurdy Man," used memorably in the film, and Ione Syke, who appears unbilled in a key scene, is Donovan's daughter. Robert Fleischer, extremely creepy in the film, is a standup comic noted for doing cartoon voices, including Roger Rabbit. Jake Gyllenhaal actually went to elementary school with Fleischer's daughter. The cop interviews on the 2-disk version of the Zodiac DVD are a bit disappointing, but the two commentary tracks are quite interesting. (SPOILER) I should note that there are other Zodiac suspects, but Graysmith and Toschi agree on who they think they think it was, and the film reflects their view.
Here's a Washington Post article on the real Robert Graysmith, and Graysmith's online discussion with readers. Here's Mark Ruffalo on Fresh Air, although his focus is more on Reservation Road.)
No Country for Old Men: No major film of 2007 spurred more discussion than No Country for Old Men. Putting aside the contentious last 20-30 minutes for the moment, there's no doubt the preceding film is gripping, memorable and often masterful. Out in the Texas countryside, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon a shady deal gone wrong, with only one person left half-alive. No one's around to stop Moss from taking the case full of money, though. When he comes back to give the one injured survivor some water, he unfortunately runs into the reinforcements, and the chase is on. A Vietnam vet, Moss figures he can handle himself, but he reckons without Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), an implacable, sociopath of a hitman with a twisted sense of honor. Moss wisely sends his wife Carla Jean away (Kelly Macdonald), while Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is left to try to stop the chaos and sort through an growing number of bodies.
The Coens adopt a laconic western rhythm, but generally tell their story visually and with elegance. They use the landscape wonderfully, and there's many a scene with a touch of whistling wind in the background, even when there really shouldn't be, but it works (and there's a sound dissolve from a briefcase sliding to a car on the road that's one of the prettiest sound edits I can recall in some time). While No Country for Old Men is undeniably violent, a surprising amount of the actual violence occurs off-screen. The Coens leave it to the imagination — as they do with several major plot points later in the film, actually.
The cat and mouse game between Moss and Chigurh makes for enthralling stuff. The best aspect of it is that neither of these guys is dumb. They're both physically fit, good with guns, but more importantly, extremely inventive. Chigurh is one scary guy, but he's not infallible, just... implacable. What makes Chigurh so scary is that he is a true sociopath. He's riveting because, as we know after we see him in a few scenes, he might kill absolutely anyone at simply any time. It makes even the simplest conversation scene with him incredibly tense. While Chigurh fancies himself a man of honor, I disagree. Sure, he keeps his promises, but as one character points out to him, he basically abdicates responsibility for several crucial decisions. He's not honorable as much as he is obsessive-compulsive.
Let's move on to the end, where the film veers sharply. (SPOILERS) I frankly want to see the film again, and plan to buy a copy. I might even read the book and some of Cormac McCarthy's other work. While I enjoyed the film overall, it was interesting that the folks I saw it with and I all had more questions a few hours and days afterward than we did leaving the theater. I loved most of the film, but found the end unsatisfying. I could partly appreciate it cerebrally, but not viscerally. Moss, the character set up to be the hero, dies off-screen, and it's not entirely clear who his killers even are. There's the much discussed aspect of whether Chigurh is hiding in the motel room or not (some critics view him more as a ghost or a force of nature, but while that interpretation can work metaphorically, if taken literally it violates factors like his bullet wound). There are strong questions about fate and chance in the last few scenes. And then there's Sheriff Ed's rambling, despairing dream monologue as a closer. While I don't feel I have a definitive interpretation as of yet, I think I get the basic elements. Moss thinks he's a badass and can handle anything that comes his way, but Chigurh is an even bigger badass. Chance can provide fortune, quite literally in the form of money, but it can also kill or maim you. The universe may not be callous, but it's at least indifferent. And there are some really, really, nasty, evil people out there — or if you prefer, really dangerous people. Nietzsche's line is that one should "Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and know if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." In No Country for Old Men, Sheriff Ed is certainly troubled by his gaze into the abyss, and the film raises the question as to whether he or anyone should try to fight that battle at all. Give the film points for being unconventional and thought-provoking at the very least, if also not conventionally satisfying.
I'm still not entirely sold, though, on it being a great ending or even a good ending versus a copout or a lack of ingenuity, and it'll be interesting to see again. Consider the justifiably famous scene in the gas station, where the gas station owner (Gene Jones) makes what would normally be an innocuous observation about Chigurh's license plate, but Chigurh takes it as a threat, and besides, the man annoys him (I used to have Conan O'Brien's great spoof of it posted, but NBC yanked the YouTube video, the bastards). The scene's gripping because the owner is sharp enough to sense that he's in danger, and tries to extricate himself. But Chigurh is now set on him, and nothing will deter him until he gets his way. The owner is trying to figure out the rules of this bizarre and threatening social game, but the truth is, even if he knew the rules, it wouldn't save him. His life, for all its small joys and daily drudgery, comes down to a single coin flip due to the whim of a sociopath. It's a terrifying scene dramatically on the first viewing, because we don't know how it'll turn out, and it's hard not to put ourselves in the owner's shoes, desperately trying to think of the magic words that might grant safety. But the scene's even more disturbing on a philosophical level, whether we view Chigurh as an agent of fate or a dangerous threat as random as his coin toss. Coleridge's characterization of Iago's actions as “motiveless malignancy” springs to mind, although Iago at least has jealousy to drive him, while Chigurh is largely indifferent, other than annoyance and fixation.
Continuing with Shakespeare, the gas station scene and the cosmology of No Country... make me think of King Lear, which features one of the harshest, most challenging endings there is. Some famous readers have found it so troubling they couldn't bear to see it staged, or read it too often, and Nahum Tate actually rewrote it with a happy ending in 1687 (just as he reworked other Shakespeare plays). In Lear, Shakespeare toys with our sense of convention and expectation (as he often did). If the play ended in Act 4, or at least before the final scene, or if one key plot development was changed, it would have a happy ending. But Shakespeare's not content with that (notably, this is his own invention, too). Most of the villains are dead by the end of the play, but the last remaining, dying one, Edmund, has ordered the death of Lear and his saintly daughter Cordelia in prison. Repenting his faults, Edmund seeks to save them, giving his sword as proof to be shown to the guards. But they're too late, and Lear enters, howling, carrying Cordelia's dead body, to die of grief himself shortly thereafter. It's an utterly unnecessary, avoidable, pointless death, it's the most virtuous character in the play, and her death is no longer even desired by the villain at that point. That's why it's so devastating (all the more so thanks to some amazing verse and if given a great performance). Lear as a play contains much wisdom, and it certainly holds that choices between vice and virtue do matter. However, in its final scenes it depicts a universe where not only it rains on the just and unjust alike, but there is no divine intervention and virtue is no proof against great tragedy. Fighting the bad guys is hard enough, and can be lethal, but even if one wins or avoids that fight, there's no guarantee of happiness for those who are good, let alone survival. It's a very troubling thought. I'd also hold that it's an accurate view of life (and that Edgar/Albany's last words suggest a response to this dilemma).
I think No Country for Old Men presents a cosmology similar to Lear's, although with more machismo and a western aesthetic thrown in. However, I also know Shakespeare, while not perfect, knew what he was doing with Lear, and I'm not yet familiar enough with McCarthy's oeuvre to vouch for him in this regard — and that's why I want to see the film again, read the book, and all that. Lear is philosophically challenging, but Shakespeare serves up that challenge directly. It's a powerful ending, but not a conventionally cathartic one. Meanwhile, in No Country..., we don't even get to see our hero die. We never witness that moment, disturbing though it may be, of him losing, perhaps realizing his arrogance or fallibility, or perhaps locking gazes with Chigurh and knowing that now his wife, too, will likely die. That'd be a pretty damn unsettling scene, wouldn't it? Road to Perdition, but with the kid gunned down as well, perhaps? I can take Moss dying, but I do want to see it. (I'm assuming that the Coens replicate McCarthy in his storytelling choice for this event, and not merely the plot point itself.) Now, while that scene would be disturbing, let's say that it'd be too conventional for No Country.... Let's say that McCarthy, and the Coens (who supposedly wrote a very loyal adaptation) want to take Lear's philosophical blow, accomplished through story, and add an additional blow delivered through the storytelling itself. Not only do they choose not to grant us a happy ending, or even the conventional catharsis of a tragic but perhaps noble death, they choose to deny us traditional narrative coherence and resolution. It's an open ending, but not even the "what next?" of Blade Runner (director's cut) or The Birds, or the clearly-defined ambiguity The Descent or several other films. Nor does it end posing a tough choice for the viewer in the style of A Very British Coup or the comic book series The Watchmen. It also doesn't really use the absurdism of Waiting for Godot and similar works, or the clear but anticlimatic resolution of Tarkovsky's Stalker, nor does it set up the Verfremdungseffekt of many Brecht works (or Bergman's Persona), although its ultimate effect was similarly distancing for me. And for me, No Country… feels less honest for all that. It really leaves many a viewer hanging and vaguely dissatisfied. (Update: Also consider the unconventionally handled key deaths in Psycho and The Passenger, both of which are effective, I'd say, but that's a lengthy other discussion.)
That's the most charitable interpretation I can currently come up with for the ending of No Country.... Now, it could just be the Coens having fun with us, as they did with the hat in Miller's Crossing and the box in Barton Fink, but especially given the pre-existing source material, I think here they want to tell a good yarn as usual, but also really want to leave us deeply unsettled versus merely confused. But the film initially promises one sort of movie and deliver something very different. While I deeply appreciate toying with convention, expectation, and plot, such a major, sudden shift in the storytelling approach itself is much more unwieldy. Honestly, I don't think No Country for Old Men is as wise, masterful or powerful as King Lear, but then, that's a rather tough and unfair comparison. It's just that in the back of my mind, I can't help but wonder if McCarthy and the Coens, like the Wachowskis in The Matrix films, started full of energy and invention, but hit the limits of their ingenuity, storytelling, and (I mean this as no slam) their capacity to fully grasp and then dramatize/visualize some very weighty philosophical concepts. (I adore Miller's Crossing, but I feel the Coens do mishandle two key moments between Tom and Bernie. That's a separate discussion, but the point here is that I'd say there's precedent for slight fumbles even by the entertaining Coens. The Big Lebowski similarly ends rather than concludes, but of course it's radically different in feel.) In any case, I hesitate to grant full points for intentionality, or at least artistry, given the many other works I've cited. Is No Country for Old Men utterly brilliant? Or is it a story with awfully good sections and audacious ambition that doesn't completely succeed? I'm happy to endorse the latter assessment right now, and promise to look at the film again this year, and years down the road, to consider whether it merits the first assessment. Sorry; don't mind me. Regardless of the film's more debatable merits and flaws, I love the Coens, No Country for Old Men is one of the best films of the year, and unless you can't take the violence, you should definitely see it if you haven't already.
(Here's Joel and Ethan Coen on The Treatment. Their session with Bardem and Brolin on Charlie Rose is also great, if you can find it.)