– The following is the fifth of ten planned online discussions between MATCH CUTS and THE FILMIST regarding the best films of the 2000’s. These transcriptions have been slightly edited due to length, but the published content remains exactly as written.
THE FILMIST: The Brothers’ Coen’s 2007 release, No Country For Old Men, is a film that, beyond the basic attraction of “hey, it’s a Coen Brothers movie!,” didn’t catch my eye all that well on first viewing, as a few of the other films on my list have done. But, then I watched it again, a year later – after seeing Burn After Reading, coincidently – and, it really began to warm up to me. Maybe it was because I hadn’t been in the right mood for it grab me beforehand, I don’t know. We Irish are a strange folk – but, that next time, it really took me by the collar. Everything just began to jump out – the cinematography, the use and disuse of silence and music respectively. Everything that you’d think I’d have noticed on first viewing, but for some reason just flew right past me.
MATCH CUTS: That’s interesting, I’ve also gone through a roller coaster ride with this film. I watched it twice in the theaters, the first time being blown away by it’s technical prowess and cynical nature, and when the second time I felt like I had gotten everything there is to get, which invariably lessoned my opinion of it since I love films to grow and grow upon multiple screenings…but watching it again on Blu Ray for this project, I was once again sucked into this disparate world. I think Deakins’ visuals and the Coen’s tactical direction create this complete overarching menace that I absolutely love. The way the violence suddenly occurs, then drops offscreen, then just pure quiet. I’ve always admired the Coen’s ability to pace a film, but this might be there finest use of mise-en-scene ever.
F: Yes, the use of quiet, of almost pure silence in the film – and the contrast it creates with the loud and insane acts of violence beforehand, which stand out all the more against the stark canvas the Coen’s create due to the lack of music behind them – is the thing that stands out to me, before anything else. The sudden silence in between words, and phrases – creating implications. Something best seen in Chigurh’s (Javier Bardem) discussion with the gas station owner.
MC: That scene for sure, but also the scenes between Ed Tom (Tommy Lee Jones) and his old friend at the end of the film, there’s just this sense of dread throughout each, and the inability for lawmen to protect innocent people plays into this aesthetic. The film’s great point comes when Ed Tom realizes that the violence has always been there, despite what you think. He’s no different from his predecessors.
F: It’s not waiting around for him to catch up, is what his friend says – right?
MC: Exactly, and it’s selfish to think you’re special in the face of pure evil. Just because you are witnessing it doesn’t make the situation unique. Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) even says that there’s no shortage of psychopaths out there.
F: “You ain’t nothin’ new.” One of the things that strikes me most about the film, in regards to the now-iconic Anton Chigurh character, is how it seems like, for most of the film, he’s almost a pure embodiment of evil. An abstract, much like a more deadpan version of Ledger’s Joker, on a smaller scale. But, toward the end, just for a few fleeting moments, his armor seems to be stripped away by Llewelyn’s wife, Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald). His voice quivers, and he seems confused about how she could refuse to flip the coin. Unnerved.
MC: It starts with Carson’s critique of his methods, and evolves with Carla Jean’s refusal, then culminates with the car crash, albeit by chance, but it’s as if the universe is coming for him, just as he has come for all of his victims.
F: Yes – and, it actually reflects on the philosophy that he espouses to the shopkeeper, earlier in the film. “Let me ask you something: if the road you followed brought you to this, of what use was the road?” And, the general message that comes across in the tagline for the film, itself that there are “no clean getaways.”
MC: Even for the devil.
F: And, surrounding all of them – the vast, wide expanse of nineteen eighties Texas, both urban and rural. It’s astonishing what they were able to do with our little old state, I’ll say that much. Still and quiet – the camera on the dash of a car pushing up the street, and on and on, until we meet the other, stranded on the side of the road.
MC: I wanted to talk about the essence of offscreen space in this film, the way Anton seems to exist primarily offscreen, through shadow, footsteps, the pressure of his air tank, and the way decisions occur suddenly but the action is so incredibly slow and meticulous.
F: Yes, indeed – the way the Coen’s convey an almost supernatural essence to Anton up until the end of the film. He’s a force pushing in from the outside of the frame.
MC: It’s also interesting to see the Coen’s hold back on their patented darkly pointed dialogue, although there are a few moments that stand out, but ultimately this film relies more on space than words, facial expressions, textures, blood, the way wounds are sewn up, bandaged, the puncture wounds of bullets. They take time to show us every moment that creates a more complex vision of the world.
F: Yes, and it seems that – coupled with their use of silence in the film – they’ve doubled back and relied more on visual storytelling to convey the sense of time and place that the story takes place in, creating authenticity that nevertheless feels slightly skewed, slightly off. It feels a lot like McCarthy’s prose, really.
MC: I mean, they’ve always been masterful visual storytellers. Miller’s Crossing, my favorite Coen film, is hands down one of the most beguiling, entrancing films of all time, and it’s because of their use of space. But this film is very fragmented, much like McCarthy’s book, and I love that they stayed true to that.
F: Oh, sure. I think one of the things that most stands out to me as far as the film’s structural composition is concerned is the double-take the film makes the audience do, when first we see the police lights haloed around Llewelyn’s hotel, around the mid-point of the film. It’s only then that the audience seems to figure out who the real protagonist of the film is, despite the title.
MC: It’s no coincidence that when Ed Tom is about to come in contact with Moss for the first time, he’s driving down the road, hears gunfire, sees the RV full of Mexican gangsters drive away, then pulls up the hotel and sees the bodies of all the victims. It’s a stunning sequence, and speaks to the idea that no one can be protected in this world, they never have been able to be protected.
F: In the book, something like this is less-stated, because there’s a stronger reliance on Bell’s narration and point-of-view. But, here – until this point – it seems like he may just be one of Llewelyn’s many pursuer’s, though less violent than Mr. Mop-Top. And, there’s actually an interesting parallel there to the way Moss discovers the dead gangsters in the desert.
MC: Absolutely, this film is chalk full of those parallels, both character and space. As a segue way, it might be interesting to talk about the isolation of both No Country and In the Mood For Love. They are different beasts altogether, but each shares a singular examination of people at odds with their environment. What’s your experience with In the Mood For Love?
F: I only saw it just recently, actually – and, one of the things that really stuck out for me on the first viewing was how influenced Wong seems to have been by Hitchcock. Not in a De-Palma-esque sense, but in the similarity of the interplay between the characters, and their eye teeth.
MC: Interesting, Hitchcock doesn’t immediately come to mind because Wong is such a dynamic, individual artist, but I get what you are saying.
F: Well, that’s what I thought, as well – and, then I was reading an interview with Wong, and he compared the Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) character with Jimmy Stewart’s character from Vertigo, and that’s when it really seemed to click, I think. Still, the other thing that stuck out so clearly was the cinematography, the composition. This is a studiously-composed film, and Wong conveys his characters through a dense, darkly colorful mise-en-scene that at times reminds one of abstract. And, the clocks. All the clocks.
MC: You get hands, the backs of necks, the way Mrs. Chan’s (Maggie Cheung) fingers graze a wall, all filtered through this haze of slow motion. Just completely enthralling from a romantic standpoint, but it’s all based on these unromantic tendencies, deceit, mistrust, inadequacy. And this plays into the idea of time, the purity and fleeting seamlessness of the way time passes.
F: All those pan-downs from a giant Siemens clock onto Mrs. Chan at work. Catching her in the midst of a pensive mood, unsure. What was interesting about the clocks I noticed was that Wong uses the same motif – and, even the same actor- in an earlier film, Days of Being Wild.
MC: It’s great how their relationship slowly develops, mostly over these very formal, neighborly meetings. Their spark seems to transcend all of these social institutions playing against them. Mr. Chow ultimately leaves because of the gossip of the neighbors, and Wong paints this separation as inevitable, yet still incredibly tragic, if not expected.
F: Yes, indeed – it feels almost like a “two lovers against the world” type of story, filtered through the sixties, which is then filtered through a slow, caressing dreamtime, where there’s a strong, anonymous social anxiety in the air. And, the use of red as a signifier throughout the movie coats all this in a red, crimson haze. Also, the irony inherent in the whole situation – the two of them becoming attracted to each other over a suspicion (later confirmed) that their respective spouses are cheating on them, with each other.
MC: Yes, the situation is ironic for sure, but the pacing is so melancholy, so lyrical, that the irony drifts away and is replaced by this connection, this brilliant series of moments between two people who don’t know each other that well, but can connect on a instinctual level.
F: And the strong texture that surrounds the two of them through the camerawork, shot by Christopher Doyle seems to enlarge these moments, this connection. Everything – the “threads of Tony Leung’s hair, the cracked patterns of an bare wall, or the pink fibrous texture of a steak -” seems subtly emphasized. And, the cigarette smoke. And, the wallpaper.
MC: Every texture gets a shot, a moment to be dwelled on, which occurs in every Wong film. Both In the Mood for Love and Happy Together seem to depend on this aspect more than any of his other films. I return to Wong hoping for him to reinvent this aesthetic, hence my disappointment with 2046 and “The Hand.”
F: I haven’t seen those two yet – what went wrong with those two?
MC: Well, 2046 is very fragmented, alternate reality Sci-Fi continuation of In the Mood for Love, and “The Hand” (one of the three shorts in Eros) seems to me a complete rehash of In the Mood For Love. Both seem to me as simple re-imaginings of his best films.
F: I don’t know, a sci-fi continuation of IML seems intriguing, actually.
MC: In theory yes. I just didn’t respond to it in the same way. It’s very distant, very cold, very off-putting. But maybe that’s the point. In the Mood For Love is that perfect incarnation of Wong’s cinematic flavors. It’s tough to beat.
F: Indeed – still, I wonder when and if he’ll ever decided to do an out-and-out sequel to “In The Mood For Love,” now that I think about it.
MC: We can only hope.
F: …set eight hundred years – in the past.
MC: Ha. that would be something.
F: Instead of the reserved, almost conservative Hong Kong men of 1962, there’s just a bunch of screaming, red-faced guys in plates riding around on horses.
MC: Being all moody and somber.
F: All sheened in red.
MC: I can see it now.