Friday, May 19, 2017

No Good Guys

More often than not, it seems to me, the Oscars voters like to reward feel–good movies. I suppose, after spending most of the year profiting from violence and exploitation, Hollywood likes to shine the spotlight on its more uplifting — and decidedly more infrequent — positive efforts.

I don't mean that the Best Picture always goes to a Disney movie or anything like that. The characters in the Oscar winners do have their flaws, but there is usually something ennobling about at least one of them, too, something that tells the audience that no one is irredeemable. (Look, this guy is X, Y or Z, and yet he still managed to be A, B or C.)

There's nothing wrong with that. It's good to draw attention to movies that praise those qualities to which we should all aspire — even if the movies aren't box–office successes and the qualities they embrace aren't especially prevalent.

The box–office successes typically focus on the things that we all find unpleasant, but many people choose to spend their entertainment dollars watching those movies, anyway — perhaps in part due to an understanding that there are far more sinners than saints in this world.

Sometimes, though, Hollywood rewards movies in which none of the characters seems to have any good qualities. Such was the case when the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men," which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival 10 years ago today, won the Oscar for Best Picture.

And since its commercial release, the movie has become the Coens' biggest moneymaker — ever. Winning Best Picture didn't hurt at the box office, of course.

Neither did the facts that the Coens shared the Oscar for Best Director, and Javier Bardem won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the thoroughly evil hit man Anton Chigurh.

If there were any redeemable characters in "No Country for Old Men," they must have been the random minor characters who had the misfortune of crossing paths with Chigurh — and the audience never knew enough about them to conclude whether they really were redeemable.

Chigurh, though, was a mystery, a real enigma, although not entirely to at least one person — the arrogant bounty hunter (Woody Harrelson) who was put on his trail. Harrelson's character observed that Chigurh was a psychopathic killer, but "You could even say that he has principles. Principles that transcend money or drugs or anything like that. He's not like you. He's not even like me."

For that matter, no one knew how to pronounce Chigurh's name. One character pronounced it sugar, but there was nothing sweet about him. I suppose that was intended to be a paradox. The Coens like to work those in when they can.

Anyway, Chigurh was hired to recover the money from a drug deal that went bad in the west Texas desert. Josh Brolin, playing a struggling welder out hunting antelope, stumbled onto the scene and found the loot — more than $2 million — sparking a cat–and–mouse chase that is the heart of the story.

Brolin's circumstances may have aroused the audience's sympathy as he tried to get away with the money and, at the same time, protect his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), but he really had no redeeming quality. He was every bit as ruthless, if not as violent, as Chigurh, the man who pursued and, ultimately, killed him.

Chigurh also killed the bounty hunter who was hired to bring him down.

Harrelson's performance was adequate but never really rose above my rather modest expectations. I enjoyed watching him on Cheers!, but I have hardly been blown away by his theatrical work, probably stemming from his post–Cheers! work in "Indecent Proposal," although that was far from his first movie. Unfortunately, it was not far from his best.

Most of the time Harrelson has been a supporting character — as he was in "No Country for Old Men."

And to be honest, that is what nearly all of the characters in the movie were. I suppose that is what nearly all the characters in every movie are, even the movies with "all–star" casts. Some of those stars, regardless of their statures in Hollywood, will be in supporting roles. How well they succeed depends upon how well they are able to keep their often considerable egos in check when only two of them are truly the stars of the show.

Even though he shared top billing with his lesser–known co–stars, Tommy Lee Jones was a supporting character as the rural West Texas sheriff hot on the trail of Brolin and Chigurh. He must have known that all along.

His character was about to retire, and his greatest contribution to the movie was serving as the inspiration for its title. Well, the actual wording comes from a poem from Yeats, but in the context of the story, Jones' character began the movie with his general lament that the area was so violent — and, at the end, he spoke of his dreams of his father, who had also been a sheriff, and how in one of the dreams his father, who was on horseback, told him he was going on ahead in a snowy mountain pass to make a fire and wait.

There was no place for him in West Texas. It was no country for old men.

In his way, I guess, Jones' character was seeking redemption — perhaps a way to win his father's approval — but he was really just looking for a way out of the place that was not meant for old men. I guess we all want that, to escape. That doesn't make us any nobler or any more worthy of admiration than anyone else.

"I always figured when I got older, God would sorta come into my life somehow," Jones' character remarked near the end of the movie. "And he didn't. I don't blame him. If I was him I would have the same opinion of me that he does."

His remarks were pithy, short and sweet as so many Texans are inclined to be — and that comes from a lifetime of observing Texans, including my own grandparents, who lived there most of their lives, and my parents, who did not.

As I say, the characters who may have had more cause for redemption were the minor ones who came in contact with Chigurh purely at random.

Carla Jean was such a character. She wasn't with Brolin when he stumbled onto the scene of the drug deal. She didn't play the cat–and–mouse game Brolin played with Chigurh. The only time she ever saw or spoke to him was near the end of the movie, when he came presumably to kill her.

I say presumably because the audience never saw him take her life — only his departure from the house where she had been staying and his casual glance at the soles of his boots. Knowing the character as the audience did, that strongly suggested that he might have been concerned that he had stepped in something — like fresh blood.

But the viewers never knew that for certain.

The genre of "No Country for Old Men" has always been a bit ambiguous.

I've heard some people call it film noir, even though that evokes thoughts of a private investigator — and, while it does deal with a crime — several crimes, in fact — film noir really isn't sufficient to describe it.

Of course, a serious problem with film noir is that it is something of a moving target when it comes to its definition. I would say that it can be whatever you want it to be. (And with the Coens there is no telling what that might be.)

Neither is it entirely accurate to call "No Country for Old Men" a western. That makes people think of cowboys and Indians, horses and stagecoaches, cattle drives and roundups.

And yet it is both at the same time — modern–day film noir and modern–day western. Not stereotypical of either. It defies easy and conventional description.

Kind of like the Coen brothers.