Monday, January 14, 2008

The Big Bang Theory

The following column is reprinted from The January issue of Providence Monthly

by Scott Duhamel

Whether you know it or not (and if you are a regular moviegoer, you do), violence and nihilism are among the strongest commercial elements in the structure of today’s commercial film packaging. Saw this, Hostel that, Smokin’ Aces up my ass, it’s all about the bim-bam-boom of strafing the populace, wiping out multitudes, kicking out the jams under the shadows of Oklahoma City or 9/11 or whatever natural apocalyptic occurrence you can thank of, and doing it in the blink of an eye. That’s entertainment, that’s contempo cinema. Audiences (particularly those that actually go to movie house) are spent and jaded, harbor no expectations except for the tick-tock machinations of the lowest common genre expectations. Shoot ‘em up, blow ‘em out, crash and burn and paint it black and ugly—that’s the ticket to the box office sweepstakes. That’s no whiny, teary-eyed complaint from the last of the cinematic strokers—that’s reality: context, theme, and mise-en-scene have been all but removed from a vast majority of the well-oiled movies. It’s all about the slam-bang-no-thank-you-mam, quick, shortcut payoffs, and surface sizzle. For the sole purposes of this inquiry, let’s examine two distinct excursions into the ol’ ultra–violence, The Coen Brothers’ No County for Old Men, and Ridley Scott’s American Gangster.
The Coen’s are nitcrit darlings, the wonderfully smart aleck guys behind such stellar cinematic outings (all box office favorable, plus critical fave raves) as Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Fargo. Still, after their last three overt failures (The Man Who Wasn’t There, Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers), a bulls-eye has been drawn on the meta-filmmakers who, critical word has it, have become seemingly far too concerned with artificially creating some smart-ass version of Hollywood’s glorious past, funny boys whose surfaces have become too slick and whose game has become too empty and obvious. Yep, well you can put that all to rest, as No Country for Old Men is undeniably Joel and Ethan Coen’s most sublime effort, a modern western that utilizes the Coen’s typically wryness, their adolescent penchant for gore, and their film student’s acumen for the form and shape of movie’s past, and created a fully formed quiet little masterpiece.
Adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed 2005 novel, the movie floats along on the dirty seeds of vengeance and greed, traffics in the slow ooze of blood, and winds itself around as subversive mediation on the soulessness of the new American west. (Not exactly buttered popcorn for the vid kid generation.) Ostensibly set in 1980, it (like Sam Peckinpah’s standout 1972 contemporary western The Getaway), if not for the presence of automobiles, could very well be occurring in 1880, shot in a familiar landscape of dusty jaggedness and big patches of emptiness, with small town streets as creaky and foreboding as any western backwater stopover. Coen collaborator and cinematographer Roger Deakins’ dense yet simple compositions are more than effective—they set a tone that clearly spells out that these ain’t the epic vistas of the heroic and bygone west, that the ragged Texas on display here is a makeshift combo of junk and spaciousness—a hard place where the sun really doesn’t get to shine.
The bare bone structure of the movie is a three person man hunt, with Vietnam Vet/cowpoke Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) haplessly ahead of the pack, otherworldly dark angel and hired assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) close behind him, and dogged, world weary old school Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) circling closely. The men share an avuncular approach that translates as saying little, preparing meticulously and drowning in their own malaise. For once the Coen’s throw aside their own legendary archness and the 3-way track down, although punctuated by the crackle of gunshots and the suddenness of viciousness, becomes memorably marked by the ominous reverberations of silence. For once, style is overcome by facility, and the movie, offering no easy or final answers, doesn’t moralize or judge. Bardem and Brolin are perfectly cast, but of course the venerable Jones, playing his twang like a maestro, brings No Country for Old Men home, a home that the Coen’s superbly demonstrate, is both repellent and void, but impossible to take your eyes away from.
American Gangster combines the stellar talents of not one, but three of the highest powered and blatantly talented Hollywood alpha males around—actors Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe and bigtime director Ridley Scott—and digs in deep and hard trying to whip up an urban classic like Scarface or The Godfather or Goodfellas, and it comes up decidedly short. Facile, aggressive, and buttressed with spicy bits, it lacks the gravitas of those aforementioned touchstones; it never quite bores inside the criminality on display in a way that (however temporarily) links you with its subject and his netherworld. While it’s not dumbed-down or pandering, it still substitutes a lotta violence-for-violence’s sake and finally gets dragged down by it’s own sense of superior social combustibility.
Washington plays real life drug lord Frank Lucas, a force of nature who is a walking talking embodiment of the American dream, a guy bent on creating his own rags-to-riches tale. Charismatic, smart, quick-on-the-draw, Lucas builds himself a criminal army and a drug biz with a captivating combo of weird etiquette and charged-up entrepreneurial fervor, and watching the film, you can’t help but to keep flashing to the bare assed fact that the guy is a pusher, a harbinger of death and destruction. (Scott and screenwriter Steve Zaillian never quite get their hands around that.)
Running parallel to the crime pin’s story is that of honest blue collar cop Richie Roberts (Crowe), a Serpico type, both intense and low key. The movies finest moments come during the sections devoted to the methodology of both gangster and copper, Scott shooting much of the nuts and bolts action with brio and filmic swagger. The movie depicts the Crowe and Washington figures as some sort of brothers under the cloth, despite their opposing types, yet all they come off as is two big screen archetypes fitted together in one of producer Brian Glazier’s wet dreams. Scott (throwing in touches of The French Connection and Superfly for good measure) can be a solid stylist, but something’s missing in American Gangster, once you get past the smooth pacing, the lilting ebb and flow of the drama, Washington’s powerhouse turn and Crowe’s eye catching attempt at going gritty.
American Gangster is simply too tidy, too meticulous, too impassive. The central conceit of the movie-the tug between vice and virtue, between race and class, between success and failure just doesn’t get explored. The movie sets itself up as a portrait of yet another American go-getter and so-called man of the people, and by and large it’s an approving one, as long as you block out the scenes of skin-poppers and the ever wasted populace. It’s a cinematic portrait neither intimate or grand, and it’s doesn’t come close to achieving the heights it means to scale.

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