After all the hand wringing about the fate of the Oscar show, it appears the Oscars will be held as planned. That means we can turn our full attention to who will win, and what the major Oscar categories will bring us. The biggest one of all is Best Picture, even though many thought the race ended for all intensive purposes weeks ago.
“Atonement” was the original Oscar favorite in the extremely early days of fall. But when the Coen Brothers came out with “No Country for Old Men” it stole the Oscar thunder while “Atonement” struggled to even get a nomination. Since December, “No Country” has been the number one Oscar favorite, maintaining the favorite position all the way up to Oscar night. The only question was what hard charging nominee would become “No Country”‘s top challenger.
“There Will Be Blood” is a movie that not only matched the critical acclaim of “No Country” but surpassed it in some circles. Critics compared it to classics like “Citizen Kane” and “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and evoked the names of John Huston and Stanley Kubrick in comparison. “Blood” became an Oscar contender due to hard critical love and the passionate support of fans who have made “Blood”‘s most popular lines into downright catchphrases. But despite “Blood” making these gains, “No Country” has maintained its Oscar front runner status throughout.
Can “No Country” and its brutal killer hold off “Blood” and the ranting of its own now legendary psychopath? Here’s how both films can stake their case, as well as what could stop them.
“No Country for Old Men”
Written and directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen.
Stars: Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, Kelly McDonald.
Plot: In 1980 Texas, Vietnam vet and hunter Llewelyn Moss stumbles upon the bloody scene of a drug deal gone wrong- and a suitcase containing 2 million dollars. But this brings upon the wrath of Anton Chigurh, a frightening and unstoppable killer who is out to get the money back. Moss goes on the run and puts up more than a fair fight in surviving, but it still may not be enough to stop this deadly symbol of evil. All the while, aging Texas sheriff Ed Tom Bell is on both their trails, shaking his head at the violent damage in their path and trying to stop things from getting worse.
Major awards: BAFTA Award, Broadcast Film Critics Association Award, National Board of Review Award, New York Film Critics Circle Award, PGA and SAG Awards.
The case for “No Country for Old Men”: The Coen brothers and author Cormac McCarthy might not have been the most likely creative forces to come together. But something in McCarthy’s novel “No Country for Old Men” has made the Coens click in a way that they haven’t in some time. Thanks to the original story of McCarthy’s, and the way the Coens have fleshed it out on screen, there is something of value for many kinds of audiences.
For those seeking an action film with murders and mayhem, “No Country” indulges in plenty of it. Or rather, Anton Chigurh does. Even if “No Country” is not remembered for its other elements, it will go down in history for Javier Bardem’s embodiment of violence incarnate. His unique methods of actually killing someone is rare and unique enough without going to “torture-porn” lengths. Bardem’s soul less look and deadpan delivery help him to approach Hannibal Lecter status. Thanks to him, anyone bored by the story’s more serious elements can look forward to being jolted by some kind of violent kill soon enough. And even when Bardem isn’t on screen, “No Country” has Josh Brolin in his biggest break to date, and Tommy Lee Jones as a more weary and conflicted version of all his “Fugitive” like barking lawmen.
At it’s easiest to describe level, “No Country” is a cat and mouse chase game. Although Moss and Chigurh are never seen together in person, the two match up tit for tat as Moss covers his bases and tracks pretty well- it’s just that Chigurh is just that good/bad. When the chase is on, these scenes go down as some of the more nail biting action sequences in recent memory. If “No Country” was just an action movie with kills and thrills, it would still be satisfying. But because it is not, it stands to reach immortality.
McCarthy’s story had hard truths and examinations about the state of humanity. But the novel laid it out in such a way that it would seem like foolishness for a movie to follow those exact same blueprints. Mostly because it did not offer the audience-pleasing joy of a big final showdown, shifted the focus from action to philosophical musings, and made supporting character Ed Tom Bell into the lead for the final act. Indeed, because the Coens followed that blueprint to the t, even many of “No Country”‘s supporters criticized them for it. But without it, “No Country” is not an Oscar frontrunner.
In a season where dreary movies about war and Iraq largely failed, “No Country”‘s efforts to wax on about the evil of humanity and modern day society struck a chord. It made Chigurh’s unstoppable evil more frightening as a symbol of the overall violent times of the country. It raised serious issues about just how much one man can make a difference to stop some of it- or even if he should. For good measure, fate and chance were tied together in one life deciding coin flip. Stories, anecdotes, and dreams became riddles that spoke to the core of the story, as well as life and death. The quick and easy traditional way of ending a movie was shattered in favor of a method where “No Country” tried to shake a viewer’s soul, instead of speaking to bloodlust. McCarthy was the one who came up with that method for “No Country” the novel, but the Coens repeating it for “No Country” the film took even more guts.
“No Country” sends us to hell in a physical manner, with Chigurh as it’s head demon, or whatever he really is. Then the movie sends us to hell in all its emotional and philosophical meanings, with Ed Tom Bell struggling to lead us, and himself, out of it. “No Country for Old Men” sounds like an odd title for a movie initially about a brutal killer chasing someone for drug money. But it makes all the sense in the world by the end- although Bell, and even the audience, is no closer to solving the world’s “dismal tide.” But it is an unforgettable ride to hell and….not quite back.
The case against “No Country for Old Men”: It is not clear if any of the voters actually read “No Country” the novel, but if they did, they would see just how closely the Coens adaptation resembles it, without too many key differences. They might then think that the movie really does nothing but reenact the book in live action form, without much else to distinguish it.
Despite all of Bardem and Chigurh’s acclaim, much of the movie does follow the plot line of Chigurh chasing Moss, nearly catching him, but failing to do so. Oscar voters might come to think of this as repetitive before long.
In addition, some of the oldest Oscar voters may be struck by the Ed Tom Bell character. Bell is someone who finds himself unable to stop this madness, and cannot understand the new kind of violence today- in going along with the title that this isn’t a country for old men. Older Oscar voters might relate to it in some way, but also be too depressed about it and about Bell’s failure as well. It might strike a bit too close to home for these Oscar voters liking.
Then there’s the third act. Not everyone thought the movie was better off for it, as it was usually the biggest complaint against “No Country” when it first came out. The damage seems to have subsided over time, but “No Country” is still vulnerable to charges that the ending is a major letdown. The lack of a final showdown, the focus on dismal and depressing themes that were already made several times beforehand, and the lack of a clear resolution could cost it in the eyes of Oscar voters. If enough of them think that way, they might turn their favor to other nominees.
“There Will Be Blood”
Written and directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier, Kevin J. O’Connor.
Plot: In the early 20’th century, Daniel Plainview is a miner turned budding oil prospector. With the aid of his young son H.W, Plainview has put together a profitable business, but has not struck the big money yet. When he gets word of a huge oil field near the small town of Little Boston, he goes off to investigate for himself. But Plainview has to enter a shaky partnership with young preacher Eli Sunday, an equally manipulative man who seeks to use the situation to gain profit for his church. Once it is discovered just how much oil is beneath their feet, Plainview goes to more and more extreme methods to get at it. And soon enough, the cost of Plainview’s “competition”, his drive for riches, his hatred of humanity, his struggles with his son, and his war with Eli result in both great riches….and great disaster.
Major awards: Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award, National Society of Film Critics Award.
The case for “There Will Be Blood”: Like “No Country”, “There Will Be Blood” breaks a lot of the rules for conventional storytelling and plotting. In doing so, “Blood” explores some of the biggest themes of the Oscar season, as all of humanity, the soul of one man, and the building economic and spiritual blocks of our country are all mixed together.
The very origin of a man, the oil industry, and the foundations of an empire of oil and man are evoked in “Blood”‘s wordless 15 minute prologue. Oil man Daniel Plainview and his drive to strike it rich are established, along with the early struggles and slow evolution of man’s ability to find oil. With oil being such a controversial part of American life today, “Blood” takes us back to the days where it all really began, and where it all began for one man who will benefit from, and help take part in, the rise of the industry.
Once the characters start talking, “Blood” takes us on an epic scope visually, and emotionally. Religion is introduced alongside the drive for oil- or at least the most base and underhanded version of religion, in the form of “false prophet” Eli Sunday, Plainview’s arch nemesis. But “Blood”;s larger mixing of oil and religion work side by side with the equally gigantic trajectory of Daniel Plainview himself.
In him, the audiences can see the worst of humanity in it’s most bitter and misanthropic form- but also see how it mixes with the drive, savvy, and ingenuity that was needed to turn America into the economic power of the world. But the best business instincts and desires for a better life only mask the untapped, unexplainable hate and resentment of the rest of the world behind Plainview’s facade. The fact that it is likely a relatable feeling only makes Plainview and “Blood” more disturbing to watch as things go on.
“Blood” only becomes more epic during the course of the story, with greater riches, greater conflicts, greater visual effects and show stopping scenes, greater inner turmoil, and greater madness. For a character like Plainview, with all his conflicting emotions and desires, the toil is bound to make any man finally snap, and snap he does. For a movie like “Blood” that takes on so much and explores so many disturbing themes, it is bound to approach a logical conclusion of pure, unadulterated horror. And that it does as well. This much can be promised- no other movie would even think of going in the directions that “Blood” does, except maybe for “No Country.” But “No Country”‘s power was it’s ambiguity and lack of any kind of conclusion to make the audience feel easier. “Blood” offers a more clear cut conclusion- Daniel Plainview is utterly insane. But no one in all of Hollywood could possibly come up with the ways to show it that “Blood”, writer/director P.T Anderson, and Daniel Day-Lewis eventually do. It is both utterly reckless and utterly gusty at the same time.
“There Will Be Blood” pays homage to so many of the classic works of Hollywood, as well as it’s legendary directors, and actually seems to come close to their greatness at it’s finest moments. Anderson himself takes on these challenges in a way that he has never done before in his already notable career. And Day-Lewis, already one of the most honored actors of the last 25 years, may have topped even his own lofty standards, which in itself says it all right there.
“There Will Be Blood” takes on so many of the biggest themes about the entire world, and about the human soul, in it’s first two acts. It does so in such a thorough way that when it goes in such a different director in the third act, it almost seems logical that it does so. It explores the darkest elements of capitalism, oil, religion, humanity, and greed. Therefore, the most extreme results of those sins is bound to be a little unhinged and incredibly disturbed. Such is “Blood” itself.
The case against “There Will Be Blood”: “Blood” is the ultimate case of a love it or hate it film, with little room for anything in between. It’s style and approach will leave a viewer and voter completely enthralled and stunned if they are able to get into it. If they are not, they will wonder what all the hype is about “Blood” and be a bit annoyed. With such a risky film, it would not be surprising if more Oscar voters than not fall into the latter category.
“No Country” had a wide variety of sinister character, but it also had Josh Brolin’s Moss as a less evil player in the game, and Tommy Lee Jones as the heart and aching soul of the film. “Blood” has no one even close to that, as it’s two main characters are manipulative and ever more hateful beings. There are not many redeemable characters in “Blood” beyond that, except for Plainview’s son. Without anyone to root for or anyone to balance out the endless stream of evil from Plainview and Eli, Oscar voters might be turned off.
“Blood” also has to deal with being the underdog. “No Country” has been the favorite for so long, and withstood every challenge thus far, that “Blood” needs serious support to overcome it, and fast. “Blood” largely got in because so many critics loved it that the Oscar voters had to take notice. But these passionate critics can’t help the Oscar voters out during the voting process. Perhaps a nomination is all that these critics can push the Oscar voters into doing for “Blood.”
Like “No Country”, “Blood”‘s most controversial element is the third act. Whereas voters might hate “No Country” for having a depressing and anticlimactic ending, they might hate “Blood” for having an ending that’s so utterly overboard. After two hours of serious examination of Plainview and the story’s themes, “Blood” shifts to a tone of such black comedy and such deranged behavior, that it could come across as a major mistake for Oscar voters. They might forget all of the powerful themes raised beforehand, and only remember “Blood” for crazed lines about drainage and milkshakes. That might not be the best way to be remembered for a movie trying to win Best Picture.
Final analysis: These two movies are the most talked about and acclaimed of the Oscar season, and may be the most acclaimed in the last few years. “No Country” and “Blood” will each go down in film history for their brutal takes on humanity, the soul, and two of the most memorable villainous characters in many years. However, “Blood” has the longer way to go in catching up with “No Country.” Although “No Country” is vulnerable to complaints and it’s third act direction, “Blood” is more of a movie that can divide Oscar voters, and turn them off with it’s third act approach.
The greater fear is that both these movies are so unsparing, hard, and uncompromising in their exploration of so much darkness, they could cancel each other out and both lose. A light hearted money maker like “Juno”, a first rate 70’s-esque drama like “Michael Clayton”, or a traditional Oscar favorite like “Atonement” could be what Oscar voters prefer more.
But if it comes down to these two movies, “No Country” has the better chance to go down easier and win more Oscar voters as friend-os.
Advantage: “No Country for Old Men.”
IMDb: “No Country for Old Men” www.imdb.com/title/tt0477348/
IMDb: “There Will Be Blood” www.imdb.com/title/tt0469494/