'No Country' No Masterpiece, Says Film Critic

"No Country for Old Men" has been nominated for eight Oscars, and many are calling it the favorite for Best Picture. Critic at large for The New Yorker Magazine David Denby says the Coen brothers' latest is not their greatest.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

The Coen brothers could buck Hollywood tradition, once again, by becoming only the second duo to win co-directing Oscars for "No Country for Old Men." The film about a Texas fellow who finds a whole lot of drug money and then is pursued drug dealers and some freakishly determined him man, will likely score one of eight awards for which it is nominated, including best picture, by the way.

Now, to all the people who are saying it's the best, David Denby of the New Yorker makes like the dude in the Coen's "Big Lebowski" and is all like…

(Soundbite of movie, "The Big Lebowski")

Mr. JEFF BRIDGES (Actor): (as The Dude) Yeah, well, you know, that's just like your opinion, man.

STEWART: Yeah, David Denby says this isn't the Coen brother's best picture. In this week's issue of The New Yorker, he walks through the many highs in the Coens' career, "Blood Simple," "Raising Arizona," "Miller's Crossing" and "The Big Lebowksi," and explained to us why "No Country" is a good but flawed work. He stopped by our studios to make his case.

In your article, you seem somewhat enamored with the way they handled the material in the first 20 minutes. And then for you it doesn't quite work.

Mr. DAVID DENBY (Critic-at-large, The New Yorker): It doesn't finally come together.

STEWART: Which I think is interesting that some of your issues are about basic plot development.

Mr. DENBY: Yeah, well, first of all, you're absolutely right. I don't think there's anything we've seen in recent years that's better than the first 20 minutes, anything that establishes a tone and a mood more sinister, more direct. It's a sheer step by step, but very precise, not a wasted shot.

So you have this guy who comes upon this blown drug deal, takes off the money. And then it's a long, long chase, a kind of cat-and-mouse game played in motels and city streets, and so on, in Southwest Texas. But when you think about it afterwards, and you realize that so much depends on the Javier Bardem character who's called Anton Chigurh, and that he's like something out of a horror movie. He just comes out of the air and disappears - he kills 12 people and nobody chases him. He seems to me like a device, a kind of low device, and not a strong enough device to sustain all this philosophical despair that you hear from Tommy Lee Jones.

STEWART: I wondered, after hearing your description about the Javier Bardem character - who I said it's like a chase movie and "The Terminator" gets thrown in the middle…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DENBY: There you go, there you go.

STEWART: Because they just can't kill this guy.

Mr. DENBY: Right.

STEWART: Are you able to separate that actor's performance, which has been praised so highly, from the rest of the movie, which you're not entirely crazy about?

Mr. DENBY: Of course the performance is really very witty because he's so precise. This totally lunatic person, you know, has this elaborate philosophy and his discussion of fate and his metaphysical ideas about this, that and the other thing. I mean, he's very, very precise, and yet his behavior is totally insane.

And Javier Bardem is wonderful looking. He has this weird Prince Valiant comb…

STEWART: Buster Brown kind of…

Mr. DENBY: …Buster Brown. He has a fabulous gravelly voice and very, very elegant - you can't quite place the accent. In fact, of course, he's Spanish. No, the performance is sublime. I think, you know, whatever he wins is deserved.

STEWART: Well, let's hear a little bit of Javier Bardem from "No Country for Old Men."

(Soundbite of movie, "No Country for Old Men")

Mr. JAVIER BARDEM (Actor): (As Anton Chigurh) What's the most you ever lost in a coin toss?

Mr. GENE JONES (Actor): (as Gas Station Proprietor) Sir?

Mr. BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) The most you ever lost in a coin toss?

Mr. JONES: (as Gas Station Proprietor) I don't know. I couldn't say.

(Soundbite of coin being flipped)

Mr. BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) Call it.

Mr. JONES: (as Gas Station Proprietor) Call it?

Mr. BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) Yes.

Mr. JONES: (as Gas Station Proprietor) For a whole lot?

Mr. BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) Just call it.

Mr. JONES: (as Gas Station Proprietor) Well, we need to know what we're calling it for, here.

Mr. BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) You need to call it. I can't call it for you. It wouldn't be fair.

Mr. JONES: (as Gas Station Proprietor) I didn't put nothing up.

Mr. BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) Yes, you did. You've been putting it up your whole life; you just didn't know. You know what date is on this coin?

Mr. JONES: (as Gas Station Proprietor) No.

Mr. BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) 1958. It's been traveling 22 years to get here and now it's here. And it's your heads or tails. And you have to say call it.

Mr. JONES: (as Gas Station Proprietor) Look, I need to know what I stand to win.

Mr. BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) Everything. How's that? You stand to win everything, call it.

STEWART: That was Javier Bardem from "No Country Old Men." We're speaking with David Denby of The New Yorker about the career and the work of the Coen brothers.

If this isn't the masterpiece that a lot of people are making it out to be for the Coen brothers, what is their finest work, you think?

Mr. DENBY: I think they hit a mid-level - mid-career peak with "Fargo." It was a wonderful film in which all, I think, of their elements, that is black comedy, violence and a tender streak - they have a tender streak about marriage. It's the one thing they're tender about. They have no interest in sex, but they have a tender streak towards marriage. Anyway, everything was in balance in "Fargo."

And I remember being kind of cold on "The Big Lebowski" which followed "Fargo" because I wanted them to stay serious. When I look at it now, "The Big Lebowski" seems to me hilarious.

STEWART: They have an audience in frat houses with The Dude and "Big Lebowski"…

Mr. DENBY: Right.

STEWART: And then the biggest art-house snobs can wrap themselves all around "Blood Simple." Why do you think they have such a big range? Is that just a matter of talent, or choice of material?

Mr. DENBY: It's both. And it's because it's very sophisticated play with old genres. Almost all of the stuff takes off from some old genre or other. So movie nuts who know their movie history can enjoy this stuff, or be outraged by it, in some cases, as they are.

And since it's also very broad, a lot of it, your frat house guys can go. And of course these Lebowski Fests, you should send a reporter to one of these Lebowski Fests.

STEWART: Oh, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DENBY: I hear a great many White Russians, which is the drink that Jeff Bridges as The Dude…

STEWART: Yes.

Mr. DENBY: …drinks over and over again. A great many White Russians are consumed. And the way you do it, apparently, is you watch the movie and every time he has a White Russian, you have a White Russian.

STEWART: A fine drinking game.

Mr. DENBY: Every time he pops a certain person, you take a - we don't have to go any further with that.

STEWART: No. People know what you mean.

Mr. DENBY: I don't know (unintelligible). Anyway that would be a good - yeah, I highly recommend that. Yeah, and I think it's a totally deserved cult.

STEWART: "Raising Arizona" is one of my favorite movies of all time.

Mr. DENBY: Yes.

STEWART: Why is that movie so funny? And why is it so quotable?

Mr. DENBY: Well, you know, a lot of the heroes are lunkheads. I say that they're probably the first directors since Preston Sturges to have stupid people at the center of their movies. Only Sturges was a lot more affectionate, and these guys can be mean. But in that case, they are very affectionate because it's Holly Hunter and Nick Cage, right? As a young couple, and they steal a baby 'cause they don't have their own…

STEWART: H.I. McDunnough, you go in there and get me one of them babies. They've got more than they can handle. They steal from…

Mr. DENBY: Don't come back until you've got a baby.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DENBY: Right. What makes it so sweet is that he loves his wife.

STEWART: Yeah.

Mr. DENBY: And then they love this baby. And of course, all the time they're sort of like talking, and sort of moralistic platitudes out of self-help groups and the Bible and so on, and trying to justify this insane thing they've done.

STEWART: Her womb was a barren land where my seed could find no purchase.

Mr. DENBY: You've got this thing memorized.

STEWART: I could keep going.

Mr. DENBY: So it's satirical and affectionate at the same time. And you really like these people, even though what they've done is ridiculous and outrageous. They're good people at heart, and I think that's what makes it such a affectionate experience.

STEWART: David Denby of The New Yorker, thanks for coming by our studios.

Mr. DENBY: Thanks.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Okay, I've got to say, Alison, you do a pretty darn good Holly Hunter.

STEWART: Thank you. I love that money.

MARTIN: But let's hear the original.

(Soundbite from movie, "Raising Arizona")

Ms. HOLLY HUNTER (Actor): (As Edwina McDunnough) You go right back up there and get me a toddler. I need a baby, Hi. They've got more than they can handle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Pretty good, my friend. Pretty good.

STEWART: Thank you very much.

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