When The Hudsucker Proxy bombed at the box office (sure, we love it today, but back then audiences didn’t get its throwback approach), the Coens were faced with a dilemma. They were popular among the intellectuals, but had yet to break through to a wider base. Using the true story of a local kidnapping as inspiration, they produced a black comedy so clever few could fathom its true greatness. Even better, their peers finally sat up and listened. After a mere smatter of awards season attention (everywhere but Cannes, that is), they finally racked up some significant Oscar buzz—and a couple of well earned trophies.
In some ways, the cult that surrounds this film often threatens to overwhelm what is actually on screen. Like Scarface and Donnie Darko, the obsession can frequently feel wildly out of place. Not here, though. In this case, the Coens created an expert combination of character and craziness, an old fashioned farce where F-bombs and freak show foreigners replace classic contrivances like mistaken identity and switched up rooms. Granted, it’s the delicious dialogue (and its faultless delivery by a seasoned cast) that keeps the customers coming back. On the other hand, the overall feel and tone of the piece provide more than enough fuel for the rabid faithful.
Shockingly effective and incomprehensibly great, this film finally proved that the Coen Brothers stand as America’s reigning motion picture Gods. Sure, some find them unusually quirky and lost in their own insular world of homages, references, and crudely hidden in-jokes, and in the past, all of those caveats would be concerning. Fact is, they are painted over every frame of their consistently fascinating flights of fancy. But No Country for Old Men is different. Instead of going outside their sphere of influence to the cinematic stalwarts that defined the medium, the Coen’s are riffing on themselves—and by doing so, they forge a near flawless filmic experience.
Mired in the death throes of a bad case of writer’s block, the guys gave up on the period gangster piece Miller’s Crossing and, instead, decided to take their angst out on the source of the misery—the movie industry. Setting the story in the early ‘40s and focusing on a self-important writer faced with ‘dumbing down’ his muse for an unsympathetic studio, the brothers threw in all their obsessions—crime, horror, love, despair, blood, violence, death…and redemption. Foreign film critics took notice—they award the film the 1991 Palm d’Or at the Cannes film festival. Even better, the experience spurred a renewed desire to complete the original project that put them there in the first place.
At their core, the Coen Brothers have always been motion picture archaeologists, mining Tinseltown’s past for their perfectionist post-modern means. But they managed something even more shocking with this celebration of fast talking, gun totting hoods—they discovered the art buried deep inside the artifice. The plot is nothing special; a series of double crosses leading to a final determination of loyalty and ‘ethics’, but the siblings’ bravura writing, their impeccable way with actors, their knowledge of visual potency, and their overall way with a camera makes for an intensely entertaining experience. Like all legitimate classics, it draws its own conclusions and leaves you breathless in the process.
// Notes from the Road
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