Spider-Man: No Way Home

SPOILERS AHEAD

Even during these doldrums of late-stage Marvel fatigue, I was hyped for Spider-Man: No Way Home. The Tom Holland entries to the canon have managed to be utterly charming and relatively low-stakes when compared to their self-important and bloated mainline Avengers installments. The strong implication that No Way Home would also include spider-men and spider-villains past was enough to temporarily revert my psyche to that of my circa 2007 self: really, really excited to see Spidey up on the screen.

Here’s the thing: No Way Home delivers the goods, just way too much of them. After a kinetic first act, proceedings drag to a baffling degree: nearly every scene in the movie overstays its welcome by several minutes. It’s not a long movie in terms of plot content, it’s a short movie dragged out to be a long movie with unnecessary business.

Even moments that had me screaming with joy at the outset ran on for an uncomfortable duration. One of the MacGuire/Garfield/Holland scenes that should have been a cathartic moment for longtime fans felt like an extended and unfunny SNL sketch. The meandering excess of every sequence made the pacing feel more like a Disney+ miniseries than a feature film. This is doubly frustrating because I enjoyed most of the plot beats and character moments in the movie, and adored quite a few — the movie just wasn’t edited down to a digestible shape.

I’m not sure what drove this editing decision. Do movies just need to be too long for streaming now? Would No Way Home have really made Marvel and Sony significantly less money if it had been forty minutes shorter? Is this how cinema dies? Help me out here!

Learned: This is really screenwriting 101 stuff: enter late, leave early. LEAVE. EARLY. But you can still make one and a half billion dollars by not leaving early, so nothing means anything I guess!

The Power of the Dog

I would argue that what Campion does in The Power of the Dog is a more subtle version of what Christopher Nolan does in many of his films: she creates a puzzle for the viewer.

SPOILERS AHEAD. WATCH THE MOVIE FIRST.

I watched my first Jane Campion film, The Piano, last year out of respect for the G.O.A.T. Holly Hunter (bless her name). I enjoyed it, but seeing The Power of the Dog cemented Campion in my mind as a rare filmmaker who leverages the medium in specifically innovative ways. This is what I’m always chasing as a viewer: what can cinema do that other forms of storytelling can’t?

I would argue that what Campion does in The Power of the Dog is a more subtle version of what Christopher Nolan does in many of his films: she creates a puzzle for the viewer. Most won’t see the whole picture of the story until the very end, and even then it could take some pondering or even a rewatch before things come clearly into focus.

How is this puzzle set up? On the surface, the events of the film are straightforward and by themselves don’t really comprise a story. Here’s what technically happens in The Power of the Dog:

– A man (Phil) bullies a woman and her son (Peter)
– Phil’s brother marries woman
– Phil befriends Peter
– Phil dies from an infected wound

But in the end, we realize there’s an entire sub-narrative happening between these beats that is conveyed with hints from visuals, performance, and subtext. This is the story:

– A man (Phil) bullies woman and her son (Peter)
– Phil’s brother marries woman
– Peter discovers Phil’s weaknesses
– Peter gains Phil’s trust
– Peter kills Phil

It’s a revenge story. Peter repays the trauma that Phil inflicted on his mother, but it’s almost as hidden from us as it is from Phil. Campion is asking us to put this sub-narrative together ourselves. The characters themselves don’t necessarily arc, but if we solve the puzzle, our perception of them changes drastically.

Maybe the most brilliant hint is the rabbit sequences. As viewers, the second a cute little animal appears in a darker drama we just know it’s not long for this world. Popular film language tells us that it’ll be killed to demonstrate the monstrousness of the villain, who we assume is Phil. When the timid and frail Peter ends up calmly dissecting the animal, we’re initially confused, but we’re being shown who the monster actually is. Campion subverts our expectation and then reverts it when we finally understand what was going on all along.

Learned: Get your viewers to connect the dots themselves, making them an active participant in the storytelling. This is a pretty advanced technique for a n00b writer like myself, but it’s something to aspire to.

Quick Takes October/November

If you know me, you know why I am morally obligated to weigh in on a new James Bond film.

October was the Month of Television with me as I blazed through an unprecedented three series, two of which I will comment on here (my head is still spinning re: Succession). And of course, If you know me, you know why I am morally obligated to weigh in on a new James Bond film. Let’s goooooooo!

SPOILERS AHEAD FOR ALL OF THESE SHOWS AND MOVIIES

Midnight Mass

I went into Midnight Mass with absolutely no information other than the title and the fact that Hamish Linklater plays a creepy-looking priest. All The Big Short alums instantly earn my attention, so I hit play in hopes of some sPoooKy fun.

Fun is not what occurs in Midnight Mass. The show’s lack of commitment to any genre makes the first three or so episodes difficult to get through: we’re not sure if we’re watching a small-town drama, a religious thriller, or a supernatural horror series. We receive enough hints of the latter two options to keep us going, but at the cost of a lot of extremely talky and slow-moving sequences of sad-sack Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) awkwardly existing in his Stephen King-sian island home town and re-connecting with high school crush and sweater-wearer Erin Greene (Kate Siegel).

In terms of identifiable screenwriting issues, this protagonist is extraordinarily inactive. Riley is not at home for any perceptible necessity, and is not trying to do anything in particular. This lack of causal fulcrum makes the show frustratingly meandering until the vampires show up.

Oh yeah! The vampires!

The appearance of a blood-sucking flying monster brings much-needed action but also a head-scratching layer of incoherence to the proceedings, especially given the religious ideas that the show has dealt with so far. So are angels actually vampires? Vampires actually angels?

The show also wants us to think (or at least consider) that vampirism just a scientifically explainable disease. So is the big vampire is just in the latest stages of that disease? If so, why the claw-ed wings and the ability to fly? We don’t know, and the show isn’t interested in letting us find out. But finding out is usually the most compelling part of a show of this type.

Thematic incoherence follows logical incoherence: we don’t know if the town’s religious hysteria is directed at anything real, so we don’t know how to view it in context of what the show is trying to say about human nature, or belief, or anything.

I wasn’t familiar with Mike Flanagan’s work before the show, but apparently he has a penchant for monologuing, which is absolutely out of control here. Show don’t tell? Yeah right, not in Mike’s world. Why show a story beat in two shots when you can accomplish the same thing in a three-minute anecdote about something tangentially related to the story beat?

Learned: Since Midnight Mass has been described as Mike Flanagan’s “passion project”, I think the best takeaway might be to never make a passion project. Kill you passions before they become boring television that only makes sense to you.

Squid Game

What can I really say about the global phenomenon that hasn’t been said? It’s brilliant, inventive, weird, messy, disappointing, and thrilling.

It might be worth just talking about the ways in which squid game inspired me personally, and the (smaller) ways in which it didn’t.

The first thing that hit me about Squid game was the sheer inventiveness of the concept, which is interesting because taking a step back, it isn’t at all new. The Hunger Games, Battle Royale, Saw, and plenty of others have all done different takes on the compete-for-your life subgenre.

So what made Squid game feel so fresh? I think it has to do with the details of the execution, especially in the design of the games themselves and the whole system that surrounds them. We understand early on that there will be games and the losers will die. The suspense comes from how specifically that will play out, and in what decisions that the characters will be forced to to make.

Maybe the best example of this is the Dalgona candy sequence, in which the characters are given a seemingly innocuous choice of four different simple shapes. We have no clue what these shapes will mean, but one character, Sang-Woo (Park Hae-soo) does. With this knowledge, he must decide whether to help his fellow players, or let them make a mistake that could kill them.

Squid Game gives us characters that we like and understand, and then pushes them to the absolute brink to show us who they really are. To tie it into my favorite Coen Brothers quote: “We get you invested, then shake the floor”.

Where the show broke down a bit for me was its need to give us a couple of last-episode reveals that if anything undercut the strong character work that was built up. I couldn’t come up with with a thematic point that the reveals underlined — they seemed to be there just for the sake of surprise. The show had so much dramatic power in its central engine that the gotchas felt cheap and meaningless, and also not the best setup for a second season.

Learned: Character is built by decisions made until pressure. Shake the floor hard.

No Time to Die

In February of 2020, my friend Laura and I came to the sad realization that pragmatically, we would probably never get around to watching every single James Bond movie.

Unless… we dared each other to watch one every single day for 24 days. We threw in the two non-canonical Bond movies for good measure, topped the month off with Austin Powers, and the 29 days of Bond February was born. It was a true test of endurance and sanity, but we came out on the other side with priceless confidence in the knowledge that NO ONE has seen more Bond than us.

Therefore it was with great anticipation that I approached the long-delayed No Time to Die, since I am now a leading authority on the subject.

I could easily nit-pick the film, but I had fun watching it and was engaged for all of its (very long) runtime. Fun set pieces, entertaining new characters (Ana De Armas and Lashana Lynch), and a third act that was one big callback to Dr. No made this a worthy conclusion to the comparatively outstanding Daniel Craig entries of the series.

This got me thinking about how the franchise could logically move forward, which I think boils down to one important question: what is the dramatic engine of James Bond?

While you can change his external features, Bond’s nucleus has to remain intact: he’s fundamentally a hardened killer who does not allow personal matters to get in the way of his job. Because of this, there’s really only one way for any semblance of an arc to be introduced into a Bond film: give him someone to care about against his better judgement, and then take that person away from him, either by their death or betrayal (or, in Casino Royale, both simultaneously). This breaks down his hard exterior and reveals a human man underneath. No Time to Die repeats the betrayal beat (then takes it back), which might be a bit predictable, but again, there’s not many other things to do with him.

Then my thought experiment became the following: what would happen if you reversed that dramatic arrow, starting with Bond as human and then showing how he loses that? Would it still be a Bond Movie? Just a thought, I dunno.

However I do have a pitch for the next Bond: Make James Bond Kinda Lame Again. We all fell in love with the super cool, super buff, super not embarrassing Craig Bond, but what if we headed back into Roger Moore territory of corny uncoolness? I think this is what we need to breathe life into the franchise, and there’s only one actor for the job:

Yes, big-eared softboi and The Crown‘s Prince Charles, Josh O’Connor. Unfortunately, googling “Josh O’Connor Bond” only yields the result of Josh O’Connor stating in an interview “I will not do Bond”, but let me dream, OK???

Learned: The distinctive core of a franchise character can limit the narrative choices that you can make, but that limitation must actually make for a really interesting writing challenge.

Last Night in Soho

LNIS_FP_005_R2 Thomasin McKenzie stars as Eloise and Anya Taylor-Joy as Sandie in Edgar Wright’s LAST NIGHT IN SOHO, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features / © 2021 Focus Features, LLC

Last Night in Soho marks the arrival of Edgar Wright as a true auteur — i.e. a director who is successful to the point that everyone is afraid to tell him his script is a complete mess with nothing coherent to say. You can tell that meaningful notes were not sought out or given during the writing process, because Last Night in Soho is full of first draft problems.

Last Night in Soho is about Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), an aspiring fashion designer who leaves her home in the British countryside for London.

What happens next is as hard to explain as it is to comprehend while watching: Eloise has vivid waking (and not waking) dreams even before she arrives in London, but when she gets there, her apartment is also perhaps haunted. The dreams/hallucinations take an intense turn, with Eloise inhabiting the persona a woman who was possibly murdered there in the 1960s every time she goes to sleep. Here’s the first first-draft problem: Wright should have chosen either the hallucinations or the ghosts, or at least make it more clear how or if they are interacting with each other. As written, it’s incredibly confusing.

Last Night in Soho is on its surface meant to be a film about nostalgia: Eloise’s fascination with the 1960s is emphasized well, emphatically. However, that thematic line is not played out in any coherent way. The film fails to draw a meaningful distinction between the SoHo of the past and the SoHo of today, with both portrayed as a relentless hellscape for women with lots of colorful and moody lighting. Despite her discovery that the past is pretty scary, Eloise finds success and praise for her retro dress designs at the end of the film. Has her relationship with the past changed at all? If this is meant to be an indictment of nostalgia, it isn’t a very strong or clear one.

Edgar Wright’s approach to the experience of being a women is a predictable brand of nice-guy condescension. It’s implied that Eloise had never been harassed by random men before coming to the BIG CITY, as though seedy urban environments are really the problem, not, you know, men. Eloise is also given a saintly male love interest who is designed to make Scott Pilgrim fanboys comfortable. They can point and declare that they are like that guy: Nice To Women!

This note COULD be a nit-pick if the rest of the script was written better, but it’s actually worth pointing out that the entire plot, including the “twist”, hinges on the fact that the old actors do not look like their younger counterparts. This feels like a cheat because in any kind of realistic context knowing who the villain is would just be an observational no-brainer.

Learned: No one is so good that their first draft works.

Quick Takes August/September

Hi. After several abortive attempts to resurrect this blog that I didn’t have time to execute, I’m going to try writing about what I’m watching to capture what I learned (or didn’t learn) about storytelling. Here we go. 

The White Lotus

Mike White’s Hawaiian resort set mini series is the closest thing to a filmed adaptation of the iconic subreddit r/AmITheAssHole that we’re ever going to get. That question is the best way to describe nearly every permutation of character interactions that make up the show, and with a few exceptions, the answer is ESH: Everyone Sucks Here.

Bleak? Yes, very. White doesn’t give us a character that we can back 100%, which in less skilled hands could be a real problem. But like that subreddit that I spend too much time scrolling through, these dynamics are so interesting and so painfully realistic that you can’t look away. The promise of a dead body given in the show’s first moments wasn’t even necessary to keep me glued to the screen.

As a side note, Mike White being a huge fan of (and participant in) reality TV make me feel better about the fact that I’ve watched five seasons of Love Island in a fiscal year.

Learned: You don’t need any conceptual bells and whistles to make something incredibly compelling IF you’re good enough at writing characters.

Meanwhile, at Hulu…

Nine Perfect Strangers

When compared to The White Lotus, this ended up being a useful study in suspense versus mystery. Nine Perfect Strangers leans heavily on the implication that the strangers in question, and their weirdo Galadriel meets Gwyneth host played by Nicole Kidman, are hiding a lot. Much of the character information is doled out via rapid-cut silent flashbacks, which compared to the sharp character writing in White Lotus feels like a tiresome cheat.

I was mildly interested in the mechanics of what Kidman was trying to do to these people (mystery), but getting there wasn’t enough fun for me to stick around. I made it about five episodes before jumping ship.

Learned: A Big Question isn’t enough to sustain drama. You have to have interesting stuff going on the entire time.

Another Round

Mads Mikkelsen – Another Round

In September, I was thinking a lot about what it means for a film to have a concept, or premise. It’s easy to know it when you see it (or don’t see it) but a bit hard to define concretely. One way to say it could be the following: a good premise is an idea that inherently suggests character action.

An example I heard discussed on a podcast recently was Bruce Almighty:

Jim Carrey becomes God for a week.

That is a premise. I could have a decent idea of how to approach writing it. As a counterexample, Napoleon Dynamite does not have a premise. It is about a strange person’s boring life. Am I saying Bruce Almighty is better than Napoleon Dynamite? No. Napoleon Dynamite is one of the great films and you can quote me on that. But its creation was an act of God that cannot be replicated.

I am not Jared Hess (or Mike White) and it is not 2004, so if I want to get paid to write someday, I need to stick to punchy concepts. This month I was on a five-hour flight, so I decided to go through the airline’s selection of streamable films to hunt for premises. After a few minutes I came across the description for Another Round:

Four high school teachers embark on an experiment to see if a constant level of alcohol in their blood will improve their lives.

Hell yes. Now we are talking. Hijinks must ensue!

I won’t go too far into analyzing the filmmaking of Another Round, but it was an absolute joy to watch and delivered on its premise in both humorous and heartbreaking ways. I did cry on the airplane.

I think this exercise was useful in separating out the ideas of premise/concept and world. Generally, when people think “high-concept”, they think elaborate world building, which in turn implies budget, vfx, and genre. The two can go together and frequently do, but they are not the same thing. Another Round is a concept-driven film populated by normal people in a normal place. Just because you have a lot of fancy visual stuff in your idea does not mean that you have a solid concept.

Learned: Concept-driven does not equal big budget genre studio film.

Motherless Brooklyn

This was another film that I found on my airplane premise hunt. The concept is not as strong as Another Round, but a 1950’s PI with Tourette’s syndrome was hooky enough for me. And having just visited Brooklyn for the first time, I was an easy mark.

Based on a novel, Motherless Brooklyn contains lots of interesting New York history, but the characters are all fictional. I think this is a better way to do historical drama. Being married to the facts can bring a lot of tedium and stilted storytelling to these type of period films, and the visuals frequently follow in the same boring vein.

This movie was… just really cute? The small-time gumshoes played by Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bobby Cannavale, and Dallas Roberts have a sweetness to their dynamic that you don’t see often in this type of movie. These guys really care about each other, and that’s what holds our interest more so than whatever detective plot mechanics are going on in the background. This warmth makes Motherless Brooklyn feel like a lot more than the sum of its fairly basic parts.

Learned: Warm character relationships go a long way towards making a movie fun to watch. We care about characters when we see them caring about each other.

Ocean’s 13/ Ocean’s 8

I joined my friend as she went through the Ocean’s movies for the first time, giving me the chance to watch Ocean’s 13 and Ocean’s 8 back to back. This afforded a stark illustration of the difference between great and just passable screenwriting. I’m not going to do a full forensic analysis of what went wrong with Ocean’s 8, but I will focus in on one moment that was illuminating for me.

My working understanding of plot is that events need to follow each causally, not just temporally. Matt Stone and Trey Parker formulate this idea as the “But and Therefore Rule”: between each plot event, you need to be able to insert a “but” or a “therefore”, not just a “then”.

In Ocean’s 8, Sandra Bullock gets out of prison, and THEN wants to rob the Met Gala. The screenwriters are aware of this glaring THEN in the middle of their first act, so they try to turn it into a THEREFORE with dialogue (recreated by me in WriterDuet): 

Not even Cate Blanchett’s character is buying this narrative band-aid. If anything, the problem is made worse by drawing attention to it.

I also can’t help but feel that Bullock was miscast as the lead here. She plays Debbie as “cool” and unaffected, which just reads as her not taking much joy in any of the fun crimes she’s committing. This is agonizing, because robbing the Met Gala is the most fun crime I can think of!

On a bright note, Anne Hathaway’s performance is incredible and it alone makes the movie worth watching.

Learned: Do not try to fix fundamental story issues by acknowledging them in dialogue.

The Coen Project Part 16: Inside Llewyn Davis

Even though Inside Llewyn Davis is a period piece, it feels like a sharp reflection of the moment of its creation, more than any prior Coen film.

In 2005, the late Blake Snyder published Save the Cat, a screenwriting guide that Hollywood has since embraced a little too wholeheartedly. If the major blockbusters of the past decade have all appeared to be cribbed from the same template, it’s because they were: Snyder’s book breaks down screenplay structure into a series of “beats”, which it claims are the key to a successful script. It even specifies on which page these beats should occur. The titular piece of advice is that in order to make a protagonist likeable, they should be made do a good deed of some sort early in the first act, i.e. saving a cat.

In the Coen’s 2013 release Inside Llewyn Davis the protagonist, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), is a folk singer couchsurfing his way through 1960’s Greenwich Village. He literally saves a runaway cat within the first ten minutes. If anyone else had made this movie, I would have read this moment as either a hilariously literal implementation of Snyder’s formula or an unfortunate coincidence. But since we’re talking about the Coens, I have to wonder if it’s a deliberate jab at the Hollywood trope.

This “Save the Cat” moment actually functions the way that Snyder intended, at least initially. Llewyn is not an immediately likeable character — he’s surly, condescending and most often passive. Despite his bad luck, we get the sense that this guy could make a success out of his life if he would just change his attitude.

But the cat sticks around for more than just a first-act beat — Llewyn ends up carrying the animal throughout most of the film. He loses him, finds him again, and eventually leaves him in a car on the side of the highway, reversing his good deed from the beginning of the film. This subversion of Snyder’s formula mirrors the character’s inability to change or grow significantly, an anti-arc that would typically be frowned upon by Save The Cat apologists.

With the cat, the Coens again dare us to discern some deep significance in what seems like a really obvious symbol. There are even “clues” in the dialog: Llewyn’s ex-girlfriend Jean (Carrie Mulligan) screams “EXPLAIN THE CAT”, when she finds it deposited in her own apartment. When Llewyn calls the cat’s owner, the secretary on the other end mishears him say “Llewyn is the cat”. I don’t think it matters what the cat symbolizes. It’s Llewyn, it’s the pain he’s carrying, it’s his dwindling musical ambition, pick your poison. But as we find out late in the film, it’s not even the same cat that he started with — the symbol itself is a fraud.

What’s not as obvious is that Inside Llewyn Davis is a film about dealing with death. Although it’s only directly addressed later in the story, Llewyn has just lost his friend and musical partner Mike to suicide. The revelation of Mike’s death reframes the central struggle of the story: It’s not that Llewyn doesn’t have the strength to make it as a folk singer, it’s that he’s not sure how to move forward in his life at all without his best friend.

This pain bubbles to the surface when Llewyn blows up at the same couple that hosted him previously, screaming at the wife for attempting to sing Mike’s part of a song that she requested Llewyn sing at a dinner party. At this moment, we understand that Llewyn’s bad behavior and ennui has been largely the result of his grief, invisible but omnipresent.

Even though Inside Llewyn Davis is a period piece, it feels like a sharp reflection of the moment of its creation, more than any prior Coen film. We can strongly feel that Llewyn is a part of a movement of young people at odds with the values of the rest of society and its encompassing economic system. Llewyn struggles to make money, but money is not the goal — the goal is to make meaningful music. He clashes with his older sister, who has embraced a more conventionally stable life path.  He’s literally unable to communicate with his father, whose senility reads as a stand-in for intergenerational lack of understanding, impenetrable even by the universal language of music.

I have to caveat this with the fact that generational labels are made up and not-very-useful ways to describe huge swaths of the population, but it’s hard to watch this and not feel the similarities to my own “generation”, one that has been broadly marked by a desire to pursue lives of meaning over lives of economic gain. This pursuit of meaning often comes with an embrace of the past — Llewyn and his Greenwich Villiage colleagues are reviving a form of music that was last popular before they were born, playing songs that are over a hundred years old. Connecting to the past in this way has its dangers — at worst, a person’s life can turn into a pastiche of a life past, centered around traditions and art forms that the person can’t really take meaningful ownership of. This is why we make fun of “Millenials” with old-timey sailor tattoos and other anachronistic affectations — their quest for authenticity has made them glaringly inauthentic.

Llewyn’s inability to break with the values of authenticity that he lives by ensures that he won’t be commercially successful. Refusing to give in, Llewyn thinks he’s a martyr for his art. Maybe he is. What he’s preserving is inarguably good and beautiful, but he’s preventing himself from discovering new meaning of his own. Would Bob Dylan be as revered today if he had never pulled out an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival? What seemed like a betrayal then is seen now as an act of artistic courage.

To close out, let’s go through some of these amazing music scenes that are available as clips. Justin Timberlake was an inspired casting choice as Jim, the clueless husband to Llewyn’s ex-girlfriend Jean. In addition to the sheer joy of watching Timberlake perform folk music, the character adds much needed lightness to what would otherwise be an almost unbearably dour film. Even in terms of color language, Jim’s sweaters are the only bright spots in the relentlessly desaturated color palette. I have watched this clip probably forty times:

Next, In a prophetic coincidence, Adam Driver makes a cameo as baritone country singer Al Cody, who along with Llewyn assists in Jim’s ridiculous space-themed pop-folk number. Everything about this is great:

And lastly, Llewyn’s performance of The Death of Queen Jane for a Chicago music manager. This scene illustrates how crucial Oscar Isaac’s casting was. In order for this scene to work the musical performance has to obviously great, so that the rejection at the end lands as a purely money-driven decision. Isaac pulls of both the music and the acting with incredible subtlety.

The Coen Project Part 15: True Grit

While the Coen version of True Grit is structurally a straightforward Western, on a deeper level it engages with a type of narrative that the directors had never attempted before — the coming-of-age story.

I’ll admit that I was dragging my feet a little bit getting myself to re-watch and think about True Grit (again, I really want to get to Hail Caesar), which if memory serves I saw for the first time in theaters my senior year of high school. I remember little of my reaction, but it was likely the perfect Coen film for that time in my life. While the Coen version of True Grit is structurally a straightforward Western, on a deeper level it engages with a type of narrative that the directors had never attempted before — the coming-of-age story.

A well-known version of True Grit was released in 1969, starring John Wayne and helmed by prolific genre director Henry Hathaway, but it would be a mistake to categorize the Coens’ 2010 release as a remake. In an interview, Ethan stated that they hadn’t seen the prior film since its release when they were kids, and that its existence was “kind of an irrelevancy” to their desire to adapt Charles Portis’ original novel. This is a statement that only Joel or Ethan Coen could make without coming off as a total asshole.

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Their writing approach for True Grit was similar to their adaptation method for No Country for Old Men — faithful to the story that they loved on the page. They adhered closer to the novel than Hathaway’s version, bringing the story’s point of view back to the young woman who seeks revenge for her father’s death.

Critics at the time seemed almost baffled by True Grit’s straightforwardness: Roger Ebert noted that it wasn’t ”eccentric, quirky, wry or flaky”. I have no idea what it means for a movie to be “flaky”, but he’s correct in that True Grit is the Coens’ most unsubverted genre exercise. It proves beyond any doubt that the directors don’t rely on any of their genre-morphing weirdness to make their movies entertaining. They’re just that good.

The setup is simple: fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross’s father has been killed by a man in his employ, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Local law enforcement in Fort Smith, Arkansas has made no effort to accost the murderer, so Mattie takes matters into her own hands, enlisting the services of an old and drunk U.S. Marshall named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help her find Chaney. Already on the hunt is Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon), who is attempting to track down and arrest Chaney for prior crimes in his jurisdiction.

Like many coming-of-age films, True Grit’s success hinges on the performance of a very young actress, in this case Hailee Steinfeld, who at thirteen was about the same age her character during filming. The Coens are lucky that their nationwide search for such a precocious kid payed off — Steinfeld is able to play Mattie as smart and determined without coming off as an neurotic do-gooder. A slightly lesser actress could have made the film work as a Western, but it’s Steinfeld’s subtlety that makes True Grit work as a coming-of-age story and nabbed her a best supporting actress nomination in the process.

I think that there are essentially two types of coming-of-age stories: one having to do with sexuality and one having to do with mortality. The ones about mortality are less common, and when done well are in my opinion the more universal and impactful version. While it wraps its coming-of-age narrative in a standard Western revenge plot, the emotional core of the Coens’ True Grit is comprised of Mattie’s journey towards an understanding of death.

Most mortality coming-of-age stories lead up to an experience of death towards the end, but in True Grit the pivotal death happens upfront. For someone who has just lost a parent at a young age, Mattie is oddly devoid of emotion. She goes about the arrangements for her father’s avengement with a strange sense of ruthless enjoyment, manipulating everyone in her path to her advantage. She’s driven not by grief or even anger, but by obligation — killing your father’s murderer is just the done thing in 1870’s Arkansas. Her behavior isn’t really stoicism, it’s a lack of understanding of what has just happened to her.

The harrowing finality of death isn’t real to Mattie until she’s tasked with cutting a hanged man down from a tree along the trail that she and Rooster are traveling. The man’s face is decayed beyond recognition. She cuts the rope suspending the corpse and watches as it slams unceremoniously onto the ground below. Before Mattie can come down from the tree, Rooster has sold off the body to a passing horseman. When Mattie asks what happened, Rooster explains that neither he nor the horseman knew the dead man, but that “it is a dead body, possibly worth something in trade”.  The incident doesn’t have a major plot significance, but we can see the wheels turning in Mattie’s head — life is fragile, death is anonymizing. Again, Steinfeld’s performance is what makes this scene’s emotional content land.

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Killing soon loses its glamour, too. When Mattie finally comes face-to-face with Chaney, she has the jarring realization that the man who killed her father is a human being. He has plenty of his own problems, only one of which is Mattie. “Everything is against me. Now I am shot by a child,” he laments. This is not exactly the face of evil that Mattie was looking forward to courageously defeating. Doling out death is only palatable when you’re able to dehumanize your victim, and in a stark contrast to No Country’s villainous Anton Chigurh, Chaney is about as human as they come. 

Mattie does ultimately kill Chaney, but nearly at the cost of her own life.  The kick of the rifle knocks her into a rocky pit where she’s bitten by a poisonous snake. With death all around her and the value of life seeming less and less significant, the lengths to which Rooster goes to save her humbles Mattie, striking the final blow to her former flippancy in the face of mortality. More death doesn’t fix death — only love can do that. 

Stray Observations:

  • The pronunciation of LaBeouf’s name, LaBeef, cracked me up every single time it was spoken.
  • Side note — If  I hear one more critic refer to a modern genre film, especially a Western, as “gritty” I will fully lose my mind.

 

The Coen Project Part 14: A Serious Man

Probably the closest thing to a horror film that the Coens have yet made, a semi-surrealist American nightmare set in a stand-in for their own Minnesota hometown.

I had never seen A Serious Man, the Coens’ 2009 follow up to No Country For Old Men and Burn After Reading prior to watching it for this entry. I expected something lighter than both preceding films, but what I got was probably the closest thing to a horror film that the Coens have yet made, a semi-surrealist American nightmare set in a stand-in for their own Minnesota hometown.

A Serious Man takes the grinning fatalism present in their previous films and puts it in a explicitly religious context. While many Coen films engage with religion on some level, it’s typically just a part of the overall texture of the world or a red herring ancillary to the  primary themes. In A Serious Man, however, Judaism is front and center: the film is about man’s relationship with God, and this God’s causal link or lack thereof to what happens in a person’s life.

The Minnesota of A Serious Man is drawn more from the filmmakers’ real life than the Minnesota of Fargo, but it feels more unreal. With its near-identical houses situated on an endless expanse of flat Midwestern plains, it reminds me of the ghost towns built for nuclear testing. Suburbs like this were probably normal-looking to people who actually lived in them, but in modern cinematic language, they represent of the darker aspects of the post-war American dream. It’s the perfect setting for the waking nightmare that is A Serious Man.

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Similar to O Brother Where Art Thou’s use of mythic structure in the form of The Odyssey, A Serious Man borrows a biblical myth, Job, as a guiding narrative template. Minus the happy ending where Job gets all his stuff back. Like in No Country and Burn After, we’re not gonna get a feel-good conclusion.

The germ of A Serious Man was a planned short film based on a real-life rabbi from Joel and Ethan’s childhood, who would hold a private audience with each bar mitzvah kid: “…he was a sphinx-like, Wizard of Oz type character, and we thought that would make an interesting short movie”. Eventually, the Coens expanded the project into a feature script set in a suburban Minnesota Jewish community like the one they grew up in.

The film begins with an apparent non-sequitur of a prologue — an Eastern European Jewish ghost story, with dialogue entirely in Yiddish. A man invites an old friend inside his home to escape the cold and have a hot meal. The catch is that his wife knows this friend to be already dead. She’s convinced that their guest is an evil spirit — a Dybbuk, dead but not dead. She unceremoniously stabs him in the chest with an ice pick, he barely flinches before bolting.

While you could infer that this opening depicts the ancestral source of our mid-century protagonist’s bad luck, the Coens have stated that the purpose of the scene is to frame the story as explicitly Jewish from the outset. I think there may be a little more to it, which I’ll get into later.

Primed by this weirdness, we are plunged into the world of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor whose life is falling apart. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) has announced that she wants a get, or Jewish ritual divorce, so that she can marry the insufferable widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Sy and Judith kick Larry out of the house and into the Jolly Roger motel, which Sy remarks is “eminently liveable”. The resulting legal fees are more than he can feasibly afford on his pre-tenure Professor’s salary.

Meanwhile the kids aren’t doing much better — his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is hounded by a bully from Hebrew school to whom he owes twenty dollars for marijuana. On top of everything, Larry has to take care of his homeless brother Arthur (Richard Kind), an odd man who spends most of his time in the bathroom draining a sebaceous cyst.

Larry is baffled by his plight, giving us our signature Coen Brothers repeated phrase: “What is going on?” As a devout Conservative Jew, Larry assumes that God is somehow involved with what is happening, and upon the advice of everyone in his life, seeks the counsel of his community’s rabbis.

The film is divided into sections by title cards, one for each of two rabbis that Larry goes to for “answers”.

Rabbi number one is the young Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg), who is trying really hard to be what he thinks a rabbi is supposed to be. He concludes that Larry is “losing track of Hashem” and that his existential confusion is simply a matter of perspective — he just needs see the things that are happening to him as God’s will.

This unhelpful piece of advice is familiar to most people of faith. The same people who tend to give this directive would not describe the objectively bad things that have happened as God’s will or even potentially God’s will prior to their occurrence. Rabbi Scott suggests a situation where you should be able to figure out what God is doing, at least in retrospect. If this seems logically futile, well, try harder.

Larry approaches Rabbi number two after the untimely demise of Sy Ableman, his wife’s intended replacement husband. This rabbi, Nachner (George Wyner), takes a more stochastic approach to God’s intentions. He tells Larry a story of a Jewish orthodontist who finds the Hebrew letters spelling out “help me” engraved on the inside of a gentile patient’s teeth. Convinced that it’s a sign from God, the orthodontist attempts to figure out what it means, ultimately going to Nachner for help as Larry did. So was it a sign, or not?

“The teeth, we don’t know. A sign from Hashem? Don’t know. Helping others? Couldn’t hurt”.

Larry is infuriated by Nachner’s conclusion, which to use a colloquial text expression, amounts to: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Hashem doesn’t owe us the answer, Larry. Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.”

Not knowing how or even if God is operating within our lives is a central struggle for any religious person. In Christianity, this topic has been wrestled with by everyone from Saint Augustine to Veggietales. What Larry still doesn’t understand is that we always have to decide how to act, whether we think we have the answers or not.

While only the first two rabbis get title cards, a third rabbinical audience occurs when the newly Bar Mitzvahed and very stoned Danny approaches the ancient Rabbi Marshak. To Danny’s delight, the old man intones the lyrics of Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love, and then returns his previously confiscated radio. His advice is concise and actionable: “Be a good boy”.

I want to talk about the physics in A Serious Man, A. because I’m a nerd and I can’t not, and B. because I think the concepts mentioned on screen point to a deeper understanding of what the film says about God. The first physics scene involves a very opaque explanation of Schrodinger’s paradox, which is a thought experiment devised by Erwin Schrodinger to illustrate the logical problems with quantum mechanics back when they were being debated in the 1920’s. If the quantum state of a particle could determine whether a cat lives or dies, and the particle is in a quantum superimposition of those two states, then the cat is both alive and dead. I read this reference as a callback to the Dybbuk of the prologue, a man who may or may not be actually dead.

This leads into a scene where Larry reveals his dependence on the objectivity of mathematics to his understanding of the world as he debates the fairness of a midterm result with a student.

Clive: Yes, but this is not just. I was unaware to be examined on the mathematics.

Larry: Well, you can’t do physics without mathematics, really, can you?

Clive: If I receive failing grade I lose my scholarship, and feel shame. I understand the physics. I understand the dead cat.

Larry: You understand the dead cat? But… you… you can’t really understand the physics without understanding the math. The math tells how it really works. That’s the real thing; the stories I give you in class are just illustrative; they’re like, fables, say, to help give you a picture. An imperfect model. I mean – even I don’t understand the dead cat. The math is how it really works.

Larry understands the math, but he hasn’t yet accepted the causal ambiguity at the heart of modern physics.

The second physics-centric scene is one of a handful of dream sequences that occur as Larry’s grasp on the causality of his life begins to crumble. Again in a classroom, Larry derives Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which states that if the momentum of a particle is known, we can’t know it’s position, and vice versa. Or in Larry’s exasperated wording: “It proves we can’t ever really know what’s going on.” As he speaks, the camera reveals a cartoonishly gigantic chalkboard full of calculations behind him. Like his trips to the rabbis, science only leads Larry to the conclusion that the truth is unknowable. Like the cat and the Dybbuk, God’s presence in his life is in a state of quantum uncertainty, both real and unreal. 

But Larry isn’t the only scientist in his family. He stumbles upon his brother Arthur’s notebook, entitled “The Mentaculus”, which contains pages of fantastical numerologic diagrams, symbols, and illustrations. Arthur believes that the Mentaculus is a “probability map of the universe”. While Arthurs’ methods of understanding the world are inscrutable to Larry, they seem to have some functional value — Arthur is banned from an illegal card game because of his unexplainable winning streaks. Still, the cosmic understanding that Arthur has discovered or stumbled upon doesn’t succeed in making him happy — he’s unable to relate to other people, and envies Larry’s personal connections, however broken and dysfunctional they’ve become.

Since it’s hard to form a real conclusion about a film that’s about not being able to form a conclusion, I’ll wrap up with my favorite scene.

 Larry’s son requests that his father adjust the TV antennae on top of the house so that he can watch F-Troop. Larry climbs up on the roof, giving us a bird’s eye view of the suburban environs that stretch out seemingly forever — interminable tops of more or less identical houses, a man watering his lawn, kids riding by on bikes. As Larry tweaks the metal appendages of the antennae, the signals phase in and out — indecipherable messages from far away. The music in this scene gives it a twilight-zone-esque sense of surreality. I couldn’t find the full clip of the scene, but here’s the track from the score:

Stray Observations:

  • This is a great simple explanation of the uncertainty principle, one of the foundational concepts of quantum physics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQKELOE9eY4
  • For the record, the Veggietales episode that deals with the whole bad things happening to good people thing is is entitled The Ballad of Little Joe, and recounts the story of Joseph and the Egyptians in produce-populated Western form. I will go to bat for Veggietales any day. I can’t vouch for their theological nuance, but they were funny and clever as hell — my brothers and I quoted them endlessly growing up. The animation itself a pretty awesome example of working with what you have — CG animation systems at the time couldn’t support naturalistic limbs or simulations, so anthropomorphic vegetables was a way to create animation that looks pretty decent to this day.
  • Another great Coen Brothers interview moment: 

    A fan asks if this film, along with No Country and Burn After, are about the emptiness of American society. Ethan cracks up as Joel struggles to give even a semi-serious answer to this question.

The Coen Project Part 13: Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading mirrors No Country’s pessimism, presenting inevitable suffering, failure and death in a farcical rather than purely dramatic context. The thematic parallels allow the films to work companion pieces, similarly to the complementary pairing of Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink.

Around the same time that they were adapting Cormac McCarthy’s novel into the screenplay for No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan were kicking around another idea. As an exercise, they wrote characters for some of their favorite actors: George Clooney, John Malkovich, Brad Pitt, and Frances McDormand (who also happens to be Joel’s wife). All of the characters that they came up with were uniquely stupid, delusional, and/or narcissistic.

To give their pack of idiots a playground, the Coens constructed a spy thriller plot — “mostly because we’d never done one before”. The resulting script became Burn After Reading, released in 2008. As with many of their films (The Big Lebowski, Fargo), Burn After Reading uses the narrative framework of a serious genre but populates it with characters that you don’t normally see in that genre, creating humorous juxtapositions.

Burn After Reading mirrors No Country’s pessimism, presenting inevitable suffering, failure and death in a farcical rather than purely dramatic context. The thematic parallels allow the films to work companion pieces, similarly to the complementary pairing of Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink.

The story begins with the rage of Osbourne Cox (John Malcovich), a low-level CIA analyst who is fired from his job for being an alcoholic. Convinced that his dismissal was a political “crucifixion,” Cox tells everyone that he quit, and decides to shore up his self-worth by writing a “memoir”. Cox’s wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) takes the firing as an opportunity to divorce Cox and continue to sleep with Harry Pfarrar (George Clooney), a clueless deputy U.S. Marshall. She gives her divorce lawyer a CD containing Cox’s personal financial information, and incidentally, a copy of his in-progress memoir. The divorce lawyer’s assistant abandons the CD in the ladies locker room of Hardbodies, a local gym. It’s picked up by Linda Litsky, a self-obsessed gym manager, and her dim-witted but endlessly positive associate, Chad Feldheimer. The pair mistake the innane contents of the CD for government secrets, and plot a blackmail scheme to extort Osbourne Cox and get rich, mostly so that Linda can pay for a slate of cosmetic procedures.

Events spiral in typical anarchic Coen fashion, with each character making their respective situation worse with their delusions and paranoia about what’s actually happening. Cox is convinced that he’s actually being blackmailed, which he isn’t, and Chad and Linda believe they’re actually blackmailing him, which they’re not. They’re children playing make-believe, but with real death as the consequence of their shenanigans.

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On the surface, Burn After Reading isn’t exactly groundbreaking in terms of characterization — writing morons is kind of the Coens’ brand. But never has the pathology of idiocy come into sharper relief than they are here. The problem isn’t just that these people are stupid — stupid people are able to not kill anyone and go about their lives just fine. The real problem here is narcissism, coupled with an utter lack of self-awareness.

John Malcovich’s Osbourne Cox provides the key example, as his delusional and selfish behavior is what drives the plot forward. He’s so privileged that he’s lost all grasp on reality. Despite his Princeton education, he’s the stupidest person because he actively believes that he’s very smart and that he’s fighting against stupidity.

Cox’s belief in his intelligence is so central to his identity that he’ll literally kill to protect it. The other characters have beliefs that they cling to similarly — Linda that her body is the most important thing about her, Harry that he’s loved and desired by every woman in his life, even the one he’s cheating on. Their blind adherence to these beliefs is what makes them so stupid.

The only characters who aren’t obsessed with their own perceived identities are Brad Pitt’s Chad and Richard Jenkins’ Ted, both of whom are devoted to Linda and both of whom end up dead.

The film offers an effective and hilarious framing device in the form of meetings between Osbourne’s ex-boss Palmer (David Rache) and the boss’s unnamed director (J.K. Simmons). The pair’s nonplussed bafflement as they try to track the insane series of events serve to punctuate the themes that Burn After Reading shares with No Country For Old Men.

“We don’t really know what anyone is after.”

“Not really, sir.”

Osbourne, Harry, Linda and Chad all believe that their pursuits have meaning, but when viewed from this outside perspective, it’s easy to see that the results of their combined actions form a morass of destructive chaos.

“Report back to me when, uh… I dunno. When it makes sense.” 

The second meeting between Palmer and the director brings the film to an abrupt end that resembles the closing scene of No Country, where Ed Tom Bell reflects on his retirement from police work after failing to defeat or understand Anton Chigurh. It’s a lot funnier, but it leaves us with a remarkably similar sense of irresolution:

J.K. Simmons’ character is clearly used to dealing with crime, but what he witnessed here is so random and pointless he can’t point to any salient takeaway from the experience:

“What did we learn, Palmer?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

Sometimes things just happen. No one gets what they want, no one gets what they deserve, and no one learns a lesson.

Stray Observations:

  • Best John Malcovich moment: emphatic cruciform arm gestures while screaming “THIS is a CRUCIFIXION!”.
  • Related John Malcovich moment: “F*ck you, Peck, you’re a Mormon! Next to you, we ALL have a drinking problem”.
  • Can’t forget to mention — John Malcovich’s pronunciation of the word “memoir” as “memoiah”.
  • Best Tilda Swinton moment: while hammering on a table, “I DON’T HAMMER”.
  • Best Brad Pitt moment – “You think it’s a Schwinn!!!”
  • Best George Clooney quirk: his interest in flooring. “What is this, pine?”
  • He’s never referred to by name in the dialogue, but J.K. Simmons’ character is called “Gardner Chubb” in the script.

 

The Coen Project Part 12: No Country for Old Men

No Country is an exceptionally difficult film because it doesn’t even hint at a resolution or solution to the fatalistic pessimism of the story. We’re left to figure out for ourselves whether harsh vision of reality it depicts is true.

I’ve been putting off writing this entry because watching No Country for Old Men never struck me as a refreshing activity for a weekend night. But since I’m anxious to make it to Hail Caesar it had to be done, so I’m glad I was able to work up the energy. The Coens’ Oscar-winning twelfth film is heavy stuff — if the violence doesn’t shake you, the existential despair probably will. While entertaining, it doesn’t give the viewer anything they’d typically want from a movie, like characters whose actions make sense, a happy ending, or an unambiguous moral. Instead, it unflinchingly performs fiction’s most important function: to hold a mirror up to the realities of human life, regardless of how disturbing the reflected image may be.

By the No Country‘s release in 2007 the Coens had proved willing to indulge themselves, playing with their favorite genre tropes and over-the-top dialogue for their own amusement. Look no further for examples than their two most recent films at the time, The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty. In a sharp turnaround, No Country For Old Men presents the filmmakers at their most restrained, mature, and in command of their craft and creative voices. If Fargo’s success and acclaim secured Joel and Ethan’s ongoing careers,  No Country cemented their place as masters in the canon of film history.

No Country is a direct adaptation of a book, Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same title. This fact didn’t surprise me — while the narrative plays to the Coens’ strengths as filmmakers, I don’t believe they would have necessarily arrived at it on their own. In fact, they didn’t even come up with the idea to adapt the novel: producer Scott Rudin sent Joel and Ethan an as-yet-unpublished manuscript of the book, to which he had just acquired the film rights.

The script was written as a faithful transposition of the source material onto film — much of the dialog is taken verbatim from the book. As Joel described the writing process: “…one of us types into the computer while the other holds the spine of the book open flat. That’s why there needs to be two of us — otherwise he’s gotta type one-handed.”

Like many of the Coens’ best films, the story is closely tied with the surrounding landscape, in this case the same 1980’s West Texas that was explored in Blood Simple.

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Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is a young Vietnam veteran who stumbles upon the scene of a botched drug deal while hunting in the desert. He snags a briefcase full of cash left behind in the struggle without hesitation, but leaves a surviving man bleeding out in the front seat of a truck. Later that night he decides to go back and help the man, but his compassion is quickly punished when he is spotted and pursued by two other drug dealers. Although he is able to escape, Llewelyn becomes the target of the psychotic cartel hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who sets out to kill Llewelyn and retrieve the stolen money.

The plot then centers on Llewelyn’s attempts to thwart his pursuer, their violent encounters resulting in some the most suspenseful scenes in the Coen filmography. Following the trail of destruction left by the two men is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), an aging detective baffled by the illogical nature of the violence he’s witnessing.

Thematically, the film hinges on the characterization of Anton Chigurh, one of the most terrifying villains ever presented on screen. Equipped with an unsettling haircut and a pneumatic bolt gun normally used to slaughter cattle, he kills not just because it’s his job, but because he seems to believe himself to be an agent of fate. He makes this idea literal in his habit of flipping a coin in order to decide whether to allow people to live or to kill them.

Llewelyn believes that he can fight fire with fire and defeat Chigurh, pushing back against fate. He succeeds in this for a short while, shooting Chigurh in the leg and escaping with only a wounded arm. But soon after, another group of drug dealers kill him while he waits to reunite with his wife in a motel room. By Chigurh’s logic, it didn’t really matter whether he was to one to kill Llwelyn or not. The result was the same — fate still found a way.

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Llewelyn’s wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) attempts to retaliate against Chigurh’s bloody crusade with reason instead of violence. When he confronts her in her home, she attempts to convince him that he has the human agency to spare her life in the following exchange:

Carla Jean: You don’t have to do this.

Chigurh: People always say the same thing.

Carla Jean: What do they say?

Chigurh: They say, “you don’t have to do this.”

Carla Jean: You don’t.

Carla Jean reasons that a normal person should be able to walk out the door without killing anyone. But is Chigurh isn’t a normal person — he pulls out his coin to let chance decide instead.

Chigurh: Call it.

Carla Jean: No, I ain’t gonna call it.

Chigurh: Call it.

Carla Jean: The coin don’t have no say! It’s just you!

Chigurh: I got here the same way the coin did

Carla Jean refuses to allow a coin flip to determine if she lives or dies — she wants to prove to Chigurh that he alone can choose. But in Chigurh’s mind, there is no such thing as choosing when everything that leads up to the choice is random. Free will becomes an illusion.

The third character standing in opposition to Chigurh is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who attempts to protect Llewelyn, Carla Jean, and others from the madman’s vortex of destruction by following the rules of police work that he’s practiced for most of his life. But his rules don’t work against a killer who follows no ordinary patterns of criminal behavior. He can’t understand Chigurh, so he can’t fight him. He decides to retire because he feels “overmatched”.  Faith can’t provide him the order that he craves, either: “I always thought when I got older God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn’t.”

No Country is an exceptionally difficult film because it doesn’t even hint at a resolution or solution to the fatalistic pessimism of the story. We’re left to figure out for ourselves whether the harsh vision of reality it depicts is true.

How can we make sense of No Country’s pessimism in the context of the Coen filmography? An obvious parallel to draw is with the Coens’ very first film. 1987’s Blood Simple is also a violent thriller set in Texas, but the darkness in No Country runs deeper. Blood Simple is about bad choices that cascade into violence, and the basest aspects of human nature that drive us to make those choices. It’s the first in a long tradition of Coen films focusing on stupid people making stupid decisions, sometimes tragically (Miller’s Crossing), but more often hilariously (Raising Arizona).

In No Country, however, we’re not so certain that choices can be made at all. Everything feels inevitable: even Llewelyn’s initial decision to steal the money was made without much reflection on potential alternatives. Carla Jean offers us an opposing view, but her belief in choice was still unable to save her.

Fargo can provide another fruitful point of comparison. On the surface, No Country and Fargo are strikingly similar films: both involve a crime that spirals out of control, a killer on the loose, and a police officer who is left to deal with the wreckage, all set in an unforgiving rural environment. But even though Fargo presents a world of comparable brutality and randomness, it offers us a respite in the form of detective Marge Gunderson. Marge is able not only to survive and defeat the bad guys, but also to retain a sense of optimism and compassion in the face of the darkness surrounding her. This contrasts sharply with Ed Tom, who despite his best efforts fails and gives in to despair. In Fargo, humanity triumphs. In No Country, the best humanity can do is to soldier on.

The thematic content is a lot to parse through, but I’ll touch on No Country’s deservedly Oscar-winning direction by talking a little about this scene, in which Llewlyn faces down Chigurh in a hotel:

It’s the most pure piece of visual storytelling the Coens have ever done. Almost every shot is a micro story beat, especially in the beginning of the sequence: the flashing transponder, the door, the shotgun being pulled from the bag. On top of that, each sound we hear conveys story information. Similar scenes rely on music to cue the audience, but that shortcut isn’t used here — intervals of silence punctuated by perfectly timed noises are that’s needed to build the suspense to a terrifying peak. With this one scene, the Coens beat Alfred Hitchcock at his own game.

The Coen Project Part 11: The Ladykillers

I’m declaring The Ladykillers officially underrated. A comedy that takes place mostly inside one house over the course of a few days, it’s the smallest and least ambitious of the filmography so far, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do with aplomb.

The Ladykillers is technically the worst-reviewed movie in the Coen Brother canon: it comes in at 55% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, barely edged out by The Hudsucker Proxy at 56%. The self-indulgent Proxy deserved all the critical flak it got, but I’m declaring The Ladykillers officially underrated. A comedy that takes place mostly inside one house over the course of a few days, it’s the smallest and least ambitious of the filmography so far, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do with aplomb. It returns to the Coens’ core competency: idiots doing stupid stuff. Set in Mississippi, it’s also a return to the American South, one of the most important locales in the Coen-verse.

Incidentally, The Ladykillers is the first remake in the Coens’ catalog: it’s based on a 1955 British black comedy of the same name starring Alec Guiness. The bones of the story are left unchanged: a group of criminals pose as classical musicians in order to use an old woman’s basement as the starting point for a tunnel-based heist scheme. The lady catches on, and therefore must be killed — hence The Ladykillers.

The Coens take the liberty of replacing all of the characters with weirdos their own invention, and this is where their version shines. Yes, these characters are one-dimensional, but this is essentially a live-action cartoon — having five fully fleshed out human beings would not be fitting for the tone nor the scope. 

The Ladykillers embraces the heist trope of the Team Assemblage Sequence, introducing each member by demonstrating their heist-relevant attributes. Gawain (Marlon Wayans) has no skills other than being a custodian at the target of the operation, a floating casino. Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons) is an annoyingly optimistic “jack of all trades” who can handle the necessary explosives, hampered only by a persistent case of irritable bowel syndrome. A Vietnamese man known only as “The General” (Tzi Ma) is a functionally mute tunneling expert. College football reject Lump (Ryan Hurst) is the “blunt instrument” by which obstacles to the team’s ends will be removed.

At the center of it all is Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, Ph.D., a professor of classics who appears to have walked off of the pages of a William Faulkner novel. Played by Tom Hanks in an impressive Coen-verse debut, Dorr talks his way out of every situation as though he’s reciting poetry. He also actually recites poetry. People like G.H. Dorr no longer exist in reality, if they ever did, but it doesn’t matter. The character is a vehicle for fun and ridiculous dialogue, simultaneously over-the-top academic and over-the-top Southern. Here’s Dorr describing the particulars of the building they’re attempting to rob: 

The door itself is of redoubtable Pittsburgh steel. When the casino closes this entire underground complex is locked up, and the armed guard retreats to the casino’s main entrance. There, then, far from the guard, reposes the money, behind a five-inch-thick steel portal, yes. But the walls… the walls are but humble masonry behind which is only the soft, loamy soil deposited over centuries by the Old Man, the meanderin’ Mississippi, as it fanned its way back and forth across the great alluvial plain, leaving earth.

Revisiting The Ladykillers after seeing The Post in theaters reminded me of how broad Tom Hanks’ skill set is. This is maybe his most mannered and directly comedic role, and he owns the character with as much commitment and specificity as any comic actor. 

The Ladykillers can be thought of as a companion piece to the Coens’ other Southern-set comedy, O Brother Where Art Thou.  It technically takes place in the present day, but it has a similar vintage feel as the depression-era O Brother. Both films are steeped in religious themes, however ironically — The Ladykillers finds its group of robbers debating the ethicality of different methods of murdering their devout elderly host. Mirroring the old-timey spirituals of O Brother, the evildoings are underscored by gospel music selections by producer T. Bone Burnett — The Soul Stirrer’s “O Brother Let us Go Back To God” is a repeated theme, played every time someone’s body is unceremoniously dumped onto a trash barge. 

Stray Observations:

  • As with Intolerable Cruelty, the Coens were originally only hired to write the script for The Ladykillers.  Barry Sonnenfeld, their cinematographer on Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing and Raising Arizona, was slated to direct but had to back out of the job.
  • This is the second Coen Film, after The Big Lebowski, where the plot to some degree hinges on a severed digit, in this case Mr. Pancake’s finger. 
  • The obligatory repeated line also goes to J.K. Simmon’s Mr. Pancake: “Easiest thing in the world!”
  • Dorr is the first character in the Coen-verse to speak the phrase “would that it were so simple”. I can’t wait for Hail Caeser.