Sunday, December 02, 2007

Back to the Theater: Robbers and Killers

After a long break, I finally braved the cold weather and snow to return back to the movie theater to watch some films.

The Robbery -- the oldest cinematic story:

The first feature film ever made was The Great Train Robbery back in 1903. Since then, the heist or robbery film has been crafted and refined countless times -- from simple train robberies to bank hold-ups to sophisticated museum & casino thefts. Director Sidney Lumet made a memorable bank hold-up movie back in 1975 -- Dog Day Afternoon. Dog Day... was based on a real life bizarre story about a man's attempted hold-up and the media + police circus that followed. Over the years, shades of Dog Day.. can be found in quite a few heist movies. Now, at the age of 83, Lumet has directed a new kind of heist film -- Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a robbery + dark family drama.

The core story penned by Kelly Masterson is wickedly evil and engaging but unfortunately the screenplay and final execution could have better. The first hour of this 2 hour film is weak but the movie gets better after the hour mark and ends on a strong note.

A few minutes into Before the Devil.., the robbery takes place. Then through a series of flashbacks, we are shown how all the characters got to the situations that resulted in the robbery. There is really no need for the flash back stories as it is obvious why the characters would attempt the robbery -- one look at the characters and their situations can be assessed completely. Also, the manner of the flash-backs is quite weak -- the same scene is repeated from a different camera angle to bridge the past events with the present. But, there is no need for these repeated scenes as they add nothing to the film. Moreover, the situations of these characters is not that complex to begin with so all the flash-backs scenes are overkill.

The real juicy movie takes place in the second hour when all the characters attempt to deal with the aftermath of the robbery. Dark, evil & intense. Revenge at all costs!

From an evil in the city to the country side monster:

Evil and blood are to be found in ample doses in the new Coen brothers film No Country for Old Men. It is a welcome change that the brothers head back to the dark murky evil territory that they first explored in their wonderful debut film Blood Simple (1984). At one point, I considered Joel and Ethan Coen to be geniuses and felt they could never make a bad movie. But then came along Intolerable Cruelty (2003) & The Ladykillers (2004) and I began to have my doubts. Now, a partial excuse for those two dull movies could have been that the brothers directed material they never originally wrote as opposed to the gems they wrote & directed such as Blood Simple, Barton Fink & The Big Lebowski. Ofcourse, O Brother Where Art Thou? was amazing but it was not a direct adaptation but a crafty blend from Homer's Odyssey to the deep American south. In that regard, I had some lingering doubts about No Country for Old Men because it is also based on material (Cormac McCarthy's novel) that the brothers didn't write. But thankfully, it is much better than their previous two adapted features.

As far as the story is concerned, it is a traditional good vs evil film, with the evil manifested in the form of a super villain (Anton Chigurh played by Javier Bardem). Anton oozes evil from every pore and can't be killed, or so it appears. He conducts his business on strong principles and appears to believe in the probability theory of creation. Anton probably believes that the universe was created on a dice roll and that is why he gives his victims the options to survive via a coin toss -- Anton is not doing the killing but it is fate that is driving him to via the invisible hand that is tossing the coin. Near the film's end, Anton calmly explains the significance of the coin toss and claims that it was the 'coin that brought him' to his victim's house.

While the battle between good and evil is going on, we have a person attempting to investigate the events in the form of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). The sheriff wants to help the good guy (Llewelyn Moss played by Josh Brolin) but I felt his role was not that of an enforcer but more of a neutral observer. It is a very interesting role as the sheriff reflects on the changing violent nature of the land. Ofcourse, the sheriff's memory only goes back to his grandfather's time when the land was quiet. Once upon a time, it was a rough country side with violent killings. Then peace reigned and in the present times, an influx of drugs and weapons is resulting in another violent phase. Which is where the movie starts off with multiple dead bodies lying on the ground while the vast and isolated desert looms large.

The movie could have been 20-30 minutes shorter. For me the weakest section was the last 10 min. Maybe it is something present in the book (the talk about old values and dreams) or maybe it is a means to justify the presence of this supreme evil killer? Another scene that bothered me. Near the start Anton is about to kill an innocent man and asks the man to "hold still". In the next scene, we see Llewelyn hunting and just before he pulls the trigger, Llewelyn whispers "hold still". Yes, the connection between hunter and prey is obvious but could this not have been handled in a subtle manner? But this is a minor niggling point as this is the only such symbolic scene in the movie. This scene reminded me of a similar usage in A History of Violence -- when a little girl wakes up screaming, her father tells her that there are no such things as monsters, only to show a real life killer in the next frame. For some reason, these scenes remind me of B-grade movies from an era long gone when the cinematic narrative options were not as well developed as they are now.

Ratings (out of 10)
  • Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Director Sidney Lumet): 7.5
  • No Country for Old Men (Directors Joel & Ethan Coen): 8.5
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