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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood

The Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men and P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood are the two most acclaimed movies of the year. Both movies evoke the atmosphere and moral landscape of Westerns without actually being cowboy movies. No Country for Old Men has the plot of a contemporary crime thriller, concerning stolen drug money, with settings along the Mexican border that may remind you of Peckinpah. There Will Be Blood is a generational epic of capitalism, religion, and other “American values” that visually quotes movies such as Giant, Citizen Kane, Days of Heaven, and The Searchers. But neither movie is content to be entertaining. Would that they were!

I had a similar reaction to both of them: they are prodigiously, even beautifully, well crafted, and each is filled with wonderful actors giving their all. (In particular, Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood and Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men have earned the praise and awards they’ve been getting.) Both movies’ narrative skill will pin you to your seat, spellbound throughout most of their long running times, although not always pleasurably so. And yet I was left cold and unmoved at the end of each of them, and I thought: Why would anyone want to tell these stories, and why should anyone have to sit through them? Both seem to me the products of a facile nihilism: Life is hell, and then you die. (This could apply as well to another highly acclaimed movie of the season, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.)

I don’t believe my objections are as simplistic as wanting a happy, or at least satisfying, ending, although there was a palpable sense of “Is that it?” in the audiences at the conclusions of both films when I saw them. But a film is a journey, and part of what makes it work is the pleasure of actually arriving somewhere. The final half hours of these two films deliberately deny this pleasure to audiences. There have been many brilliant films with similar qualities and flaws. But for me at least, the narrative dead ends in No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood match their moral and philosophical emptiness.

This is not really the best that our top filmmakers can do. Last year’s Children of Men and Pan's Labyrinth and The Departed and United 93, and this year’s Zodiac and Sweeney Todd – violent and upsetting films all – are much better in my estimation. If you’re a film buff, you’ll of course want to see any new film by Joel and Ethan Coen and by Paul Thomas Anderson. Someday they may make films as accomplished as their talents seem to promise. In Fargo and in Boogie Nights, respectively, they came close. In these two new movies, heaviness and pretension defeat them.

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