Saturday, December 15, 2007

A trip to "Juno" and a descent to "No Country For Old Men"

I loved these two films, though they couldn't be much more different.

"Juno" is an observant comedy about a 16-year-old whose one rather half-hearted sexual encounter with her best friend lands her pregnant. After finding she can't go through with an attempt to, in her words, "procure a hasty abortion," Juno decides to have the baby and give it to a well-appointed childless couple whose pennysaver ad impresses her ("desperately seeking spawn," she paraphrases). Her ensuing journey turns out to disrupt her life more than she had hoped. Indeed, although the couple (very well-played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) clearly expects Juno to flake out on her decision (and not without reason), they turn out to be the flaky ones.

The script by first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody grabbed me immediately with its sharp wit--Cody gives lines to everyone, but especially teenage Juno, that are so bitingly funny that, if I step back, I don't quite believe anyone would say them. And yet, they are delivered here with such low-key, almost deadpan, perceptive timing that I did believe them. Better yet, the film's humor contains a slow burn of insight that makes it a richer pleasure than most comedies. Directed with a surpisingly sure hand by Jason Reitman (he directed the decent but inferior "Thank You For Not Smoking," and both he and Cody are about 30), it is full of wonderful performances, including J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney as Juno's realistic but solidly supportive parents, and an impressive Michael Cera (the gentle nerd of "Superbad") as Juno's baby's dad. He is unbelievably sweet, if a little slow to react, and her quick, sarcastic wit makes her dawning admiration of him a particular joy to watch. ("You're the coolest person I've ever met, and you don't even try," she confides in one scene, to which he replies, almost under his breath, "Actually, I try really hard.") Watching their relationship's unusual progression, without fanfare, from thoughtless to connected, via Juno's odd experience of pregnancy, is one of the film's many gifts. The pace and uncanny perceptiveness of the dialogue reminded me a bit of "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," but with a hopeful, girl-power twist. [Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual content, and language.]

"No Country For Old Men" is an entirely different kind of pleasure, though just as rich. It's the latest from the Coen Brothers, whose most recent films have left a little to be desired but who have a body of work (including "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "Raising Arizona") that includes some of my very favorite films. This film most resembles "Fargo," though its humor is more deeply buried. Based on a Cormac McCarthy novel, it tells the story of Anton Chigurh, a killer whose evil is as unfathomable as his unpronounceable name. Chigurh, though tall, seems somehow larger than he is; he wears a creepy page-boy haircut and cuts a swath over the barren Texas landscape carrying a tank of compressed air, which is typically used to slaughter cattle but that he uses it to kill people. He seems grimly propelled by some dark purpose, but it's hard to say what that is, though on the surface it is mostly to recover some drug money that has been taken from the scene of a violent shoot-out by a terse welder named Llewellyn Moss, who found the carnage and the suitcase full of money while hunting and decided to keep the cash. Returning home to his trailer to prepare to protect it, he tells his wife, "I'm fixin' to do somethin' dumber than hell." In truth, he's no dummy, but his assessment of the merits of his choice turns out to be much truer than he imagines.

The film ostensibly tells the story of Chigurh's pursuit of that money, but seems more deeply to be a meditation on how it is that such chilling evil can exist. The meditation comes from the film's observation of Chigurh's murdurous passage (though, I must say, his most terrifying scene involves a conversation in a convenience store), but also from Tommy Lee Jones as an aging sheriff whose pursuit of Chigurh seems to convince him that he is no match for the evil that is out there. It's a pitch-perfect performance; he conveys the character's tragic sense that life has taken an incomprehensibly sinister turn with a profound gravity, and the courage not to look away. Javier Bardem, a Spanish actor who I have greatly admired in much more sympathetic roles (he was nominated for an Oscar for playing a tragic Cuban poet in "Before Night Falls" and is quite a heartthrob in "The Dancer Upstairs" and "The Sea Inside"), here delivers one of the most terrifying characters I've ever seen. Jones and Josh Brolin as Moss are also stand-outs in an excellent cast, as is Woody Harrelson as a cocky bounty hunter. As with all the Coen brothers' films, the dialogue is cunning and crisp, the details richly observed, and here they make some very interesting choices about what to leave out, realizing, as few films do any more, that what you don't show increases the impact of what you do.

This film is so dark that it is probably not for everyone. Nevertheless, I loved it and wanted to see it again immediately. It just got under my skin. A lot of films depict evil and violence from a kind of remove, even making them fun or at least fascinating. This one really is a kind of meditation. How can such evil exist? Where does it come from? Is there any kind of power that makes a response possible? Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle comments that to see this film "is like encountering some elemental, wordless truth that everybody knows inside but tries not to face. The movie puts a big hand on your head and forces you to look." And somehow, it seems right that you should. [Rated R for strong graphic violence and some language.]

No comments: