I Sez: No Country for The Good Doctor
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 26, 2008
Mad Spoiler Alert
“You know, Lee, most of these movies that win a lot of Oscars, I can’t stand. They’re all safe, geriatric, coffee-table dogshit, y’know?…All those assholes make are unwatchable movies from unreadable books. Mad Max, that’s a movie. The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, THAT’S a movie. Rio Bravo, THAT’S a movie.” -Clarence Worley, True Romance
I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot since No Country for Old Men took home the Best Picture Oscar last night. As I’ve now stated all too forcefully on this blog now, I did not expect No Country for Old Men or its partner-in-crime, There Will Be Blood, to take home the Best Picture. Because for at least the last decade-and-a-half, safe, geriatric, coffee-table dogshit movies made from unreadable books seem to be about all that’s been winning. And now, this marks two years in a row (The Departed for those of you with less long-term Oscar memory) where movies that Clarence would almost surely have whole-heartedly endorsed have taken home top honors, marking the longest such streak since Silence of the Lambs and Unforgiven won in back-to-back years in ’91 and ’92. Pretty remarkable, if you ask me.
But when I think about it, past Oscar transgressions weren’t the only reason why I predicted No Country to be upset by Juno, or even Atonement. Partly, it’s because even though NCFOM winning is one of the coolest things to happen to the Oscars in ages, and even though it might’ve been my favorite movie of those nominated (only Blood gives it competition), I still kind of wanted it to lose. In a weird way, No Country losing would’ve validated the nagging feeling of frustration and dissatisfaction that No Country left me with–the kind of feeling that no Best Picture winner as strange and untraditional as No Country should really leave me with.
“There wasn’t a single thing about that movie I didn’t love,” one of my friends exclaimed about No Country while discussing it during the Oscars last night. I smiled and nodded, even murmured a half-hearted agreement, even though it wasn’t really the truth. Because I wanted it to be the truth. I wanted it so, so very badly to be the truth. Moreover, because it fucking should have been the truth. Because it seems like everyone loves No Country unreservedly. Because the Academy, the same group of know-nothing know-it-alls that elected Dances With Wolves over Goodfellas and Gladiator over Traffic, were bowled over enough by it to overlook that it was a cynical, understated and extremely violent thriller and not some poncey bullshit that happened a long-ass time ago. Because there seems like no good reason that I shouldn’t love it unreservedly.
And because, for the first 90 minutes of the movie, I did love it unreservedly. Those first 90 minutes were basically the Coens and company putting on a clinic, so to speak–displaying such unbelievable verve in every filmmaking category that counts that it could almost be interpreted as showing off. It was THE perfect thriller, an unbelievable mixture of technical innovation, fascinating storytelling and good old-fashioned suspense. Those 90 minutes ensure Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin as inductees in the all-time badass canon, cement the Coens as being among the most relevant filmmakers of their generation once more, and prove once-and-for-all that it doesn’t matter what accent she’s doing, there’s not an actress on the planet more heartmeltingly adorable than Kelly McDonald. Those 90 minutes ensure that No Country For Old Men is a stone classic, no matter what.
And then…the turn. You remember the first time you saw Mulholland Drive? It’s kind of hard to remember now, for me at least, but the first time I was watching that movie, I was totally with it for about as long as I was with No Country, and I absolutely loved it, the coolest, freakiest and hottest neo-noir I had maybe ever seen. And then there was the scene with the box–you know the one–and everything I thought I knew about the movie changed. Technically, my eyes and ears followed the rest of the movie to its fruition, but mentally, I checked out of the movie at the beginning of the turn. Because I was pissed off. Because I liked that movie–the movie of the first 90 or so minutes, that is–so unbelievably much, and I was furious that David Lynch had robbed me of the opportunity to see how it would’ve ended. I didn’t care nearly as much how this new, unrecognizable movie ended.
Now, a few years later, a whole bunch more late-night viewings, a whole lot of theory reading, and I understand. I get why the movie–the whole movie–ended the way it did, I think it’s as brilliant as anything Lynch has ever done, and I don’t begrudge the turn anymore. So I’m willing to acknowledge that with time, with viewings, with perspective, I might feel similarly about No Country‘s detour. But what infuriates me is the way that no one seems willing to discuss it, that no one even seems to care. Suggest that maybe No Country would have been better served with a more conventional ending, and you may as well be suggesting that Raging Bull should’ve ended with Jake LaMotta hiring Burgess Meredith, losing 50 pounds and fighting his way back to the top to the strains of Bill Conti.
But let’s compare it to another movie from Clarence’s That’s a Movie canon. Let’s say you’re watching The Good, The Bad & the Ugly. You’re about up to the scene where Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach blow up the bridge to sabotage the fighting soldiers on both sides so they can get across unfettered and get to the treasure buried in the nearby graveyard. Only, say this time, before Clint and Eli get there, Lee Van Cleef sneaks up on Eli when he’s alone and kills him. And then, off-screen, we hear Clint getting winged by some enemy fire, and then we see his bloody corpse. Meanwhile, turns out there’s been a nosy sheriff that’s been following all three the entire time, only he’s more interested in eating breakfast and telling metaphorical stories than actually doing any effective detective work, and he never even encounters any of the three main players. Lee Van Cleef slinks back to his dark hole wherever, and the treasure stays buried forever.
OK, so it’s not the same thing. OK, so there’s a deeper meaning to the way the Coens’ movie ended, one more concerned with matters of death and fate and inevitability than with who gets away with the sack with the dollar sign on it. OK, so there’s actually a fairly respected source text that the Coens are referring to here, and they couldn’t very well shape out a completely brand-new, crowd-pleasing ending without fans, critics and anyone else who knows enoughto give a damn screaming bloody murder. I’m willing to concede all of these things. I’m even willing to admit that it makes me an essentially shallow film watcher to demand such instant gratification, especially from filmmakers I claim to love as much as the Coen brothers.
But just for a second, step forward to the monitor. Look me straight in the eyes. And tell me the truth–weren’t you just a little bit disappointed that the movie ended the way it did? Wasn’t there a part of you that was absolutely heartbroken that you didn’t get to see some super-tense Mexican Standoff between Bardem, Brolin and Harrelson, or at least some grand-scale shootout between the first two to determine, as Brolin would put it, the Last Man Standing? Weren’t you a tiny bit flustered when Bardem didn’t even have it out with Tommy Lee Jones at the end? Fuck the Oscars, No Country had the potential to be, straight up, the best thriller maybe ever made, a popcorn classic for the ages, a thinking man’s T2. Are you actually going to tell me you weren’t even slightly angry when that dream was shot full of holes with Brolin?
Well, then, mister, you’re a better movie watcher than I. And hey, maybe you’re part of the contingent that actually gave a great movie the Best Picture Oscar for only the second or third time this decade, so more power to you. But I’m sorry, I guess I’m just not ready to say OK. I’m not ready to be a part of this world yet.