Movies – No Country for Old Men, Black Book

Two films this week – both recommended for their straightforward, no-nonsense ability to tell a good story. No roller-coaster MTV steadicam editing tricks, no heavy stylistic flourishes to labor your way through, no obvious CGI Ooohhing and Aaahhing, no histrionic showboating or star turns. The real deal with no camoflage.

No Country For Old Men is deceptively austere – dusty plateaus, hotel rooms, tiny general stores, trailer parks, diners. And most of people in them fit there, are comfortably ensconced or on a familiar visit to them. When their comfortable and familiar lives encounter some of the nasty stuff that’s out there, they don’t know what to make of it – in fact, don’t understand why they have to contend with any of it. Llewellyn (Josh Brolin) stumbles on the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad, and discovers 2 million dollars, abandoned. The Coens barely waste script space on explaining why it’s the greatest blessing and greatest curse ever visited upon him. “If you lost 2 million dollars, at what point would you stop looking for it?” is just about all he has to say about it. He doesn’t call the cops, he doesn’t plan on living in a beachhouse in Costa Rica earning 20 percent, he just makes himself scarce, and tells his wife not to worry, he’ll stay in touch. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) stumbles across the same scene, and it just makes him tired. Again. He can do his job, he’s no stranger to these circumstances, but where did this all start from, and why is it all he seems to get stuck with these days? He longs for his younger days, when the men in his position felt like what they were doing actually made a dent, actually made a difference. Because killers like Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) are the new forces of nature. Relentless, unyielding, professional, primitive and totally soulless. That’s not to say they don’t have a lot of personality, but you don’t wanna be in a conversation with this guy. Any conversation. Ever.

I won’t belabor plot points – just know that just about every minute of this movie belongs there. The camera rarely leaves eye-level – it takes a higher angle to more effectively describe the initial wreckage of the discovered deal – but for most of the movie, you’re genuinely with each character, in natural proximity. There’s a music credit, but I don’t recall hearing any besides the occasional radio or jukebox in the background. Absolutely nothing intrudes on the imperative to tell a good story and observe the human behavior thereof.

I left the theater feeling like that wasn’t a great movie, but it sure was a good one. The trouble is there should be fifteen or twenty movies this good coming out every year, and I’m sadly resigned to the fact that that’s not gonna happen anymore. Like Ed Tom Bell, I feel like life, and the movies that emerge to describe it, just aren’t interested in that demographic anymore.

Black Book – my friend Doug mentioned seeing Jean-Pierre Melville’s brilliant but almost claustrophobically dark ‘Army Of Shadows’. Here’s your antidote, Dougola – a bright, fast-moving, sexy, violent, compellingly-told story of the Dutch Resistance against the Nazis. It follows Rachel, a young Jewish singer as she tries to escape to Belgium with, eventually, her family. But they’re double-crossed, the refugees are all killed save Rachel, and she joins the Resistance, eventually landing the task of seducing and betraying a high-level Gestapo officer she had happened upon earlier in the film. Intrigue and espionage and music and laughter and decadence and redemption and more double and triple-crosses and plot twists than you could imagine actually believing (but they almost all work). Just enough violence to convince you it’s a war without wallowing in it, just enough sex and nudity to convince you they’re full-grown adults who mean it.

Carice Van Houten (Rachel, later Ellis) is onscreen for practically the entire film, and gives one of those seemingly effortless, absolutely credible and fascinating performances that are supposed to win Oscars. (Sorry, Carice, but we need to nominate Laura Linney again. ‘Cuz Julianne all but took the year off, and Meryl had an off year as well, and, besides, we didn’t manage to distribute your little foreign film very well. It’s those damned subtitles…). Paul Verhoeven, better known for bread-and-circuses extravaganzas like Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers, and Hollywood show biz howlers like Basic Instinct, Showgirls and (the almost unwatchable) Hollow Man, really settled back into the idea of commiting those big-screen chops to a terrifically naturalistic story, and he did himself proud.

Highly, highly recommended.

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