Developing video games is consuming more and more of today's creative talent, with little benefit to show for it in the broader culture. Traditional art forms such as poetry, music, and painting tended to inspire each other forward in a virtuous cycle, but video gaming, a solitary vice, has been a cultural black hole. Game-inspired films, for instance, have mostly failed, because watching a movie star frenetically shoot bad guys is missing the point of playing, which is to shoot them yourself.
Finally, Joel and Ethan Coen ("Fargo" and "The Big Lebowski"), the most gifted of the many brother-act frauteurs making films today, have figured out how to bring the pleasures of a problem-solving first person shooter game to the movie theatre. Strangely enough, they've done it in their first literary adaptation, a faithful rendition of No Country for Old Men, the 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy, an acclaimed master of American prose.
Despite the 74-year-old McCarthy's august reputation, his book is a surprisingly high-energy art-pulp Western. It's essentially a chase featuring two highly competent antagonists: a
West Texasgood old boy (who, while antelope hunting, finds $2 million among the bullet-riddled bodies of Mexican drug-runners) tracked by a relentless killer hired to retrieve the money.
Josh Brolin (Barbra Streisand's stepson) plays the Pac-Man being pursued, the trailer park protagonist, with the blue-collar likeability of character actor John C. Reilly and the technical resourcefulness of TV hero MacGyver. A skilled welder, he's smarter than he looks, but not quite ruthless enough. He could have made a clean exit with the $2 million, but instead, after telling his wife, "I'm fixin to go do something dumbern hell but I'm goin anyways," returns to save the last survivor of the drug deal shootout he had stumbled upon.
This act of mercy unleashes upon his trail a pitiless "Ghost," a hit man played by Spanish actor Javier Bardem as a Terminator-style juggernaut. Like Schwarzenegger's cyborg, he even performs surgery upon himself after a shootout.
The Coen Brothers have discovered that the paradoxical key to making a video game movie is to slow down the action, allowing the viewer to think along with the hero and villain. Not since the sniper scene that makes up the second half of Stanley Kubrick's
film "Full Metal Jacket" has a movie played fairer with the audience in detailing the physical puzzles confronting the characters. How, for example, could you best hide two cubic feet of $100 bills in your motel room? And how could your enemy find such well-concealed money? Vietnam
I know I've seen a well-crafted film when I walk out of the theatre yet still feel like I'm living in the movie. Leaving the amnesia thriller "Memento," for example, I was convinced I'd never remember where I'd parked my car. With "No Country," this post-movie spell lasted longer than I can ever recall. Even the next night, every car that passed me on a quiet street seemed an eerie, sinister harbinger of sudden violence.
"No Country" inverts numerous elements from "
." The crime in that 1996 film, for instance, was solved by a wonderfully unlikely sheriff, a polite and very pregnant Frances McDormand. Here, however, Tommy Lee Jones is typecast as the archetypal Fargo sheriff, yet he proves frustratingly ineffectual at stopping the mayhem. Thus, the plot winds up as anti-climactically as most video game plays, with the (male) viewer wanting to try it again so the hero won't make the same mistakes twice. Texas
For reasons I don't fully understand (and am not sure I really want to think about), most of us guys, no matter how blameless our lives, enjoy doing some contingency planning about how we'd handle it if we ever had to climb into that white Bronco and make a run for the border. Thus, many men hated the great Chick Flick "Thelma and Louise" less for its supposed feminism than for how dopily Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon let their feelings botch up their escape from
Arkansasto . I quickly worked out for them an itinerary for their getaway over the Mexico Rio Grandeto Matamoros, but they weren't equally serious about route selection and ended up in northern Arizona, where they fell, deservedly, into the Grand Canyon.
You can rest assured that the hero and villain in "No Country for Old Men," a Guy Movie if there ever was one, wouldn't miss Mexico by 500 miles.
Rated R for strong graphic violence and some language.