One of the Coen Brothers’ most popular works, and with good reason, No Country for Old Men opens up as a dark-hearted thriller with a suitably soul-churning slow-burn style and some stunningly subfuscous cinematography from long-time Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins, and concludes as a burning bullet into the American soul and a deliberate, deeply textured dissection of Western iconography and the myth of the American Dream. For all its thematic heft, it’s an astoundingly sensory motion picture, where theme and content merge with form, and style becomes substance; every image and sound, no matter how slow and cavernous, coalesce into an abominable whole that attains a sort of lurching, poisonous, unspeakably despairing propulsive forward movement. It’s an indefinably visceral motion picture, the kind that feels humanity’s worst sorts in its very bones, and it sits back and shakes its head with a sense of hopelessness. For everything crawling under its skin, it never feels obtuse or over-written, and looking back on the 2000s, few cinematic achievements find craftsmanship so pure and perfected. Continue reading
So what happened is this: As some may have noticed, I have removed my yearly lists of top ten films for the past five years from the site. They’d been taunting me with how quickly my tastes had changed, and I found them inadequate at this point. Instead, I will be conveniently replacing them soon with a long list of my 50 favorite films of the first half of the 2010s, now snugly coming to a close after five long years. Expect plenty of overlap, but the text will all be brand spankin’ new, and of course 2014’s crop of beasties will be on board too. I promise I won’t do this again, but a good portion of those lists were leftovers from my previous pre-blog writing days, and I wanted to start fresh with the new year.
For the next few days I will be uploading a collection of short reviews, in pairs for post-size sake (although the pairs will not be linked conceptually at all, unless you consider films released in the 2010s a sufficient link). All will be of films that are in consideration for the list (great films I first saw or re-watched recently, with some new and not-necessarily-so-great 2014 leftovers I just caught for the first time thrown in for fun). Just some stocking stuffers for y’all to tide you over this Holiday season.
The Raid: Redemption
2014 brought The Raid 2: Berandal, which upped things to operatic heights of artistic blood-letting and furious visual motion, but sometimes it’s the simple things that pay off in spades. For The Raid 2 frequently hits, and hits hard at that, but if director Gareth Evans took action down to the wheelhouse on a never-ending train ride of grandiose brutality, his storytelling stowed away to no avail. The end result was a film of two halves, one a rampagingly color-coded action extravaganza with an eye for physical motion and space, and the other a pretentious, over-cooked crime thriller with eyes for Infernal Affairs that don’t suit the film’s strengths. Continue reading
Or: a couple of short reviews I had penned and linked together in one of my patented “just made up on the spot” combinations, namely that they are both products of 2005, they are both depressingly cynical and nihilistic modern reflections of the long history of their respective genres, and they, respectively, fit into the genres I’ve covered in the past couple months: the western and film noir. Again, don’t think too much about why I posted these films together. Just enjoy the ride.
The significant resurgence of the Western genre since about 2005 (for reasons I’m not entirely sure of) is one of the few truly surprisingly revelations from the cinematic world to be found this past decade. It’s all the more notable particularly because the Westerns themselves have taken so many different forms, from pure, effervescent myth-making, to black-hearted heaving gasps of grimy moral decay, to slowly gliding, almost Impressionist location tapestries where characters serve merely as extensions of the environment, to plain ol’ rootin-tootin shoot em’ up character studies.
One of the first, and among the absolute best, in this trend was John Hillcoat’s rusty nail mauling of the gaping, open wound flesh wound of Australian history, The Proposition. It wouldn’t emerge the best Western over the past ten years (my vote would probably go to the sensuous The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), but it’s within earshot of the title. Considering the film’s swaggering aimlessness and rough-around-the-edges decay, it may even graze that ear. Continue reading
Edited and Updated 2016
Released only one year after Robert Altman’s first masterpiece, MASH, this sly, revisionist Western is the rare film whose intentions and affect are captured fully in its opening credits. Fore-grounded, we have an image of a decrepit, hunched over, and phony looking enigma of a man riding slowly into an equally decrepit and hunched-over town. It is nothing short of a stunningly snarky and caustic wry mockery of the Western archetype hero riding into town to save the day. Only he isn’t there to “save the day” here. He, McCabe (Warren Beatty), simply wants to make a name for himself, and he does so by running a brothel, but only once he’s saved by a woman who initially couldn’t care less about him, the down-to-earth Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) who somehow manages to maintain an unreachable magisterial mystery about her. And that’s the film in a nutshell: decrepit, deadened, and down-trodden yet still somehow attaining a sort of energetic sense of positively alert human feeling. In this sense, it is the quintessential New Wave film. Continue reading
Few genres run the gamut of nervy nightmare to clear-conscience mirth like the Western. Some films have used the medium to push deeper and deeper on the world’s great un-bandaged wounds. But, traditionally, the genre has been enjoyed for its ability to set the mind at ease. Filled with grand, black-and-white archetypes which convince us of a world long-gone predicated on righteous morality, the Wild West is less reality than a dream, a moral vision of America’s mid-century hopes for a conservative world in an era where the world’s complications were increasingly boiling to the surface. In the 1940s and 1950s, the genre was the ultimate in cinematic comfort food.
This being a review in a month-long exploration of the Western genre.
Update late 2018: After a re-watch, I’m not entirely satisfied with my original, college-age review. (Would that I ever was?). In particular, I find my more nihilistic reading of Dead Man to be hopelessly mired in my youth. In its interplay of shaken signifiers and layered meanings, Jarmusch’s film is never nihilistic. If it reduces the Western to a pageant, it also animates new possibilities for pageantry, retexturing the Western as a kind of poetry as Emersonian as it is Derridean, as open to reconnecting with space and nature as it is exposing its inabilities to do so. The film thrives on an immanent tension, and would that more films followed suit.
After all, if this film re-reads all films as lies, is not Dead Man part of that great filmic canard as well? Dead Man is not “truth”, nor does it want to be. It’s a self-reflexive, filmic op-ed piece, overstated for pure effect. In its untethering from reality, it associatively overlays, blurs, and emulsifies various images and sounds together in new, unexpected ways, shattering pre-established truths and restitching them with an eye not for their cohesion but their imaginative associations, for the spaces in between them, for the breakages and fractures which expose the stitching of reality and the potential for reorganizing sound, space, and mind to new ends. A lyrical expression of the Western as out-of-body experience, it not only critiques the genre; it breaks it, and resurrects it as something anew. What it ultimately imagines is not anti-Western, really, but a new, hopefully prognostic breed of cinema, one not only interested in excoriating the Western myth but also in conjuring a new, more mutable one, a vision of the Western as self-critical, poetic play. I’ll keep the original review up for posterity’s sake, but read at your own risk!
Original Review (Edited mid-2015):
Dead Man is a revisionist Western, sure, but there have been many great revisionist Westerns (look to Eastwood’s masterpiece Unforgiven from three years before-hand for ample evidence). There certainly have not, however, been many movies like Dead Man, Jim Jarmusch’s attempt at creating not a gritty non-myth but an anti-myth – and it’s a marvel of marrying acidic form to acerbic content. This is not only a revisionist Western, but an anti-revisionist Western, an anti-Western, even an anti-film. Continue reading
This being a review in a month-long exploration of the Western genre.
I’ve seen a lot of Westerns. I actively seek out the genre for two reasons. Firstly, existing within a genre of B-pictures with lesser commercial prospects, the films often have a freedom to poke and prod at the nature of film and storytelling in ways films with more money put into them, and thus with more money expected in return, might not have the unexpected freedom for. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the Western was historically perhaps the genre where America and its desires are most wont to play themselves out for audiences. Westerns explore a mythic version of traditional American life – some uphold it, some read it past itself to create untold postmodern myths, and some take a knife to the genre and skewer it for all to see. Continue reading