A Serious Man

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A beautiful, complex cinematic fable that forcefully challenges the viewer to examine his or her worldview.

Review:  Life is complicated.  There’s no easy answers.  It’s difficult to separate cause, effect, and random chance.  We all need lenses with which to interpret the world, but there’s so many of them to choose from.  Cinema, as a lie that supposedly tells the truth, often presents us with a clear worldview that purports to explain every happening within its narrative.  What happens when you remove this objectivity and leave the audience and the protagonist adrift in a tumultuous sea of competing perspectives, leading the audience back to their uncomfortable, uncertain lives?  You get ‘A Serious Man’, a complicated faux-Talmudic fable and Rorschach test as only the Coen brothers can tell it.

From the opening scene, detached from the rest of the story entirely, to the staunchly ambiguous ending, ‘A Serious Man’ manages to keep us struggling in those murky depths for its entire running time.  We’ve never sure whose story is true, or how to process the tragic events and mysterious circumstances that occur outside of the protagonist’s control.  ‘A Serious Man’ isn’t a nihilistic movie, per se; it just challenges us with the horrifying possibility that it might be.  The important thing is to make a choice.

Because of its unpredictable, confrontational approach, ‘A Serious Man’ is highly suspenseful, arguably to the same degree as their previous film ‘No Country For Old Men’, for suspiciously similar reasons.  If a narrative is unsurprising, it is probably unfulfilling.  The chaotic nature of a plot, whether introspective like ‘A Serious Man’ or athletic and violent like ‘No Country For Old Men’, stems from its tent-pole philosophy of faith vs. meaninglessness.  A screenwriter is expected to satisfy burning questions:  Who is who, what happens next, why does it happen, how does it end, and others.  When a screenwriter provides us with just enough information to draw logical conclusions, but an equal dose of counter evidence, we are left on a high tension wire between truth and falsehood, the greatest suspense of all.

In this way, the Coens communicate directly with us, like a wise man spinning an instructive fable.  The intent of such stories is to provoke a proper ethical response to real-life situations.  We are likewise instructed, here, to believe in something.  To remain uncommitted is a great error.  Time and chance happen to us all, but if we see the world through a focused lens, we can take a measure of control.  If you don’t believe, you can’t act.

‘A Serious Man’ is a gorgeous movie.  Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, well, impeccable.  The score plays sorrowful and menacing under Carter Burwell’s hand, and the soundtrack composed of Jefferson Airplane and Hebrew chant is a singular, evocative earworm that keeps the fable running through your head long after the movie cuts to black.

I do like food metaphors.  If I were to compare ‘A Serious Man’ to food or beverage, I’d call it alcohol, and something strong, at that.  An acquired taste that can cause strange reactions and possibly headaches.  It’s damn delicious, though.  Very good year.

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No Country For Old Men

Stars:  ★★★★

Summary:  Existential, genre-slashing, disturbing cinema at its very best.

Review:  Cinema gives us innumerable opportunities to vicariously experience fear.  The raw reaction to the most basic of survival instincts is a large part of why we keep coming back for more.  Most times, we opt for the proverbial roller coaster experience; the main characters, our conscious avatars, make it through alive, often by the skin of their teeth to intensify catharsis.  Populist movies are structured to insure such satisfying escapes.  If we want to take these animal emotions seriously, however, we need filmmakers capable of dropping the bottom out.  While we’re physically safe, our psyches, so well-trained by common experience, are vulnerable to truly nightmarish twists.  When filmmakers go this route, they tend to compensate by helping us identify with the killers over the victims.  When the Coen brothers went for it, in their Best Picture adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘No Country For Old Men’, they balanced our sympathies nigh perfectly, creating a truly disturbing film.

Nihilism and justice collide in an unrelenting chase through Western Texas.  Roger Deakins’ gorgeous and clear cinematography heightens the sense of you-are-there, and the Coens’ screenplay, with minimal dialog, exposes a multitude of procedures that the hunter and hunted use to stay in the game.  Even in the film’s wide vistas, we feel the walls closing in, as the characters we identify with at a simple human level fight to survive.  The hunter and antagonist, Anton Chigurh (played absurdly well by Javier Bardem), exhibits believable sociopathy and a moral code all his own.  He’s a predator incomprehensible to his prey.  In our introduction to the hunted, Llewellyn Moss (ditto by Josh Brolin), the filmmakers encapsulate this theme without saying a word.  Llewellyn is a socially acceptable hunter, a creature who by virtue of intelligence and superior fire power preys on game from a comfortable physical and emotional distance.  In short, in relation to pronghorn, Llewellyn sees himself the same way Anton relates to, well, anything.  Doing his damnedest to put a stop to this cat-and-mouse game is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (ditto for Tommy Lee Jones), an aging lawman who views the unfolding chaos with due horror.

The plot mechanics, the $2 Million McGuffin and the why’s behind it all, take a backseat to the story’s inescapable present tense and ever-increasing violence.  While other stories make a point to ensure the audience’s karmic satisfaction, the kernel of truth here is that, despite the best of intentions, evil continues to haunt the human race.  The struggle here is cosmic, between the animal and spiritual natures of humankind.  Predatory and survival instincts often overrule justice.  Our higher ambitions, a fire in the night, pass from one generation to the next, keeping the cold, meaningless chaos from turning us all into Anton Chigurh.  The Sheriff and Anton are almost absolute opposites, but they both answer to a code of ethics.  The difference lies in empathy.  True justice submits to and ensures harmonious coexistence, countering the lone wolf within us.  Anton’s justice, whatever it is, is truly unknowable, because it belongs to him alone.  It is therefore meaningless.

This is an example of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences making a, if not “the”, right choice.  ‘No Country For Old Men’ is probably the best picture on this subject.  Being a Coen brothers film, it’s the height of craft, but what makes it special is how far they go in subverting genre expectations.  ‘No Country For Old Men’ defies convention and substitutes original story.  This is a movie for cinephiles who like getting existentially scared out of their wits and making sense of their reaction.  It’s not for the fainthearted or brainless.  It’s too good at what it does.

True Grit (2010)

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A classic Western story told with refreshing perspective.

Review: I grew up with classic Westerns, mostly of the television variety. ‘Bonanza’, ‘Gunsmoke’, and ‘The Rifleman’, among others, helped shape my sense for storytelling, first through innocent admiration, and then through critical distance and deconstruction.  The Wild West is quintessential American mythology and so overused.  The Western genre long ago went stale to my taste, with only a few stories cleansing my palate and proving its enduring potency.  Among these have been films like ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’, ‘Unforgiven’, the remake of ‘3:10 to Yuma’, and now the Coen Brothers’ rendition of ‘True Grit’.

‘True Grit’ looks and feels like a movie out of time.  It’s appropriately gritty and realistic, but lacks the revisionist cynicism often associated with Westerns of the past few decades, allowing it to keep the ethics and themes of the source novel without repentance.  If I had to boil it down to one word, it would be “classic”.  Like most of the Coen Brothers’ output, it seems destined for that appraisal in posterity.  In style and substance, the film far exceeds genre expectations, lending humanity and thus complexity to every character, realism to the violence, a nigh-surreal level of beauty and variety to the settings, spitfire dialog loaded with archaic phraseology, etc., etc., etc.  The Coens are masters of character development, and it shows, even within the simple archetypical roles at play.

Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, played by John Wayne in the original film and here inhabited by Jeff Bridges, is in this film closer to the real gunslingers of the old West than the kind of folks Wayne played in his career.  He’s simultaneously cowardly and heroic, an object of pity and admiration, a man with a bloody reputation that doesn’t exceed believability.  He’s sought out by a 14-year-old girl named Mattie Ross, whose father was murdered by a two-bit villain named Tom Chaney, and she wants the Marshal to aid her in her quest for justice.  Hailee Steinfeld, the young actress who brings Mattie to life, is better than most established thespians.  Not only can she deliver the complex, straight-from-the-novel dialog with the best of them, she makes you believe that a young girl of her intelligence and spunk might just accomplish her goal.  Since the film’s related entirely from her perspective, we experience the familiar Western imagery and scenarios through fresh eyes.  I make special mention of these two, but the other characters and the actors that play them, down to the smallest role, crackle with the fires of life.

It’s often said that reality is unrealistic, and ‘True Grit’, by hewing close to real-world consequences, has a sense of unfamiliar unpredictability that is entirely refreshing.  We may scoff and declare that the violence on show is the stuff of Hollywood, but stranger things have happened, and ‘True Grit’ is a reminder of this fact.  Details that are often scuffed over in cinema, such as the particulars and limits of firearms, get embraced here.  My favorite moment of realism is when a man stands on top of a hill, viewed from afar, and when he fires his pistol in the air, there is delay to allow the sound to reach our ears.  I recall saying “Wow!”, since even something as simple as sound delay is a rarity in Hollywood films.

Of course, all these trappings are meaningless without a strong story with resonant themes.  The narrative thrust is the stuff of classic Westerns: A murder sparks a manhunt, based on nothing more than the bereaved’s wish for vengeance, and the law looks high and low for the villain, a journey culminating in a bloody firefight.  As I mentioned before, the refreshing factor is Mattie Ross’ naivety, which shatters her illusions of simple retribution and exposes her to the terrible results of such an adventure.  It’s a brutally truthful coming-of-age story.  Often revelations of the harsh, dangerous world mark childhood’s end.  The only way to overcome it is with other people, even people we despise, though as Mattie learns, our efforts may still yield bittersweet endings.  This reality requires true grit.

This film is a total pleasure to watch.  Exciting, funny, scary, and sad, it’s a classic Western adventure, and best of all it’s actually quite accessible, despite all the things I said about its requisite grit.  I look forward to seeing ‘True Grit’ again.