Frederick Wiseman’s second feature length documentary is a frightening indictment of public education institutions, which would seem unfair and cynical except that I can remember specifically living through variants of more than half the scenes Wiseman captures here. The arbitrary punishments and bland affirmations of blind faith in bureaucracy are captured and projected, one after another. The result is a hellish portrait, and Wiseman takes the leverage he builds up to draw some damning connections between the lack of critical thought that goes on in the School and the Vietnam war casualties.
Even the less subtle montages here have a certain gracefulness; one sequence plays the bubblegum pop song “Simon Says” over a group of girls doing synchronized jumping jacks for a gym class. They’re shot from the neck down, and the whole sequence has a texture that recalls a kind of warped Busby Berkeley. The texture of the film is what gives it a great deal of its power; the grim and mindless enforcement of authority is shown to be done not in any kind of histrionic display but in very monotone exchanges; mechanical.
If only more educators could have seen this and not sentimental tripe like Dead Poet’s Society. Thankfully Wiseman is now selling discs for public consumption at prices that, while certainly not encouraging any many shopping sprees, make the films at least accessible to the public in some form.
This is the best film the Coens have made, mostly because of their choice of source material. Cormac McCarthy’s prose, with its starkly pared-down language and sharp reduction of scenes down to their components as philosophic juxtapositions, forces the Coens to focus themselves more than they have in their comedies. It lacks the usual dark humor and while watching one hardly misses it. They deal here with eternal forces, not broad satirical targets, and the result while far from perfect is refreshing.
In embracing their tendency to draw two dimensional archetypes instead of awkwardly trying to distract the viewers with jokes the Coens do away with much of the gratingly adolescent malaise and obsessive castration anxiety that mars so much of their other work. The performances are all excellent within the context of the film. Javier Bardem comes across like a broad villain, but that’s because that’s what the script seems to call for. There is very little behavior in the film and lots of clipped allegorical dialogue; to give a performance in a realist mode would be to betray the forward thrust of the film, the question of free will.
The weaknesses and failures of the film bizarrely enough seem to stem back to McCarthy. McCarthy in an interview once said he only deals with “questions of life and death” and because of this had no understanding of writers like Henry James. This quality comes through very clearly in No Country; the possibility of truth or insight only seems possible when a character faces the inevitability of death in the most stark terms imaginable. As a dramatic conceit this is effective; it ratchets up tension and emotionally draws the audience in. As an epistemology that supposedly draws out “truth” from characters it’s sophmoric, overly hard-boiled, and creates all sorts of logistical problems. If the arrival of death actually brings out someone’s true philosophy, we then need to accept that Charles Darwin didn’t believe in evolution and that Guantanamo Bay is probably the most productive philosophical investigation going right now. These are both, of course, absurd propositions.
Chigurh as the embodiment of death is interesting mostly insofar as his pretense to randomness and chance is theatrical posturing.