Monday, November 19, 2007

Icons and chameleons

This weekend, I went to Berkeley with friends to see the new Coen Brothers film No Country For Old Men. Here is the preview.

The stars of the movie are Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem, though the protagonist is played by Josh Brolin, the son of Mr. Barbra Streisand. What got me to thinking about this post is the different acting styles and career choices of the actors involved, most particularly Jones vis-a-vis three of the actors playing character roles.

Jones is a icon. You see Tommy Lee Jones and you know what to expect to some degree. This is not to say he doesn't change from role to role, but his changes are more like variations on a theme. Jones' decision is the way of American actors for many generations, most especially the biggest stars. When you went to a Humphrey Bogart movie, you knew what to expect. Likewise Henry Fonda or John Wayne or countless others. Not a knock on their acting abilities, because they all had commanding screen presences. It's like Charles Bronson once said: "I'd love to read a script one day, and there's a scene of me in a tuxedo, drinking champagne and leaning against the mantelpiece. But I'm pretty sure that's not going to happen."

In contrast, we have these three actors from the film.

Playing Jones' deputy is Garret Dillahunt. The picture of him above is from the first season of Deadwood, where he played Jack MacColl, the murderer of Bill Hickok. The producers of the show liked him so much they brought him back in the second season to play a completely different pivotal role as the advance man for the tycoon George Hearst. Dillahunt has the kind of good looks that would usually be cast in leading man roles; he could easily be playing Dr. McDreamy if that's what he wanted. But he often plays darker roles, as he did twice on Deadwood. In No Country For Old Men, he plays against type as a loyal good guy, out of makeup made to ugly him up or lots of facial hair to hide behind.

There is a brief scene in the movie, part of it in the trailer, where a businessman hires a character outside the law, played by Woody Harrelson, to hunt down the main bad guy, played by Bardem. The businessman is played by Stephen Root. His most famous role is as the strange guy Milton in Office Space, who has an obsession with a beloved red Swingline stapler. The Coen Brothers have worked with him before, when he played the blind radio station man in O Brother Where Art Thou. He was also the billionaire radio station owner Jimmy James in the TV show News Radio with Dave Foley and the late Phil Hartman. He doesn't always go for the strange make-up, but he clearly has the range to do it and creates some very memorable characters, even if not all of the public will remember his name.

I knew I'd seen Kelly MacDonald before somewhere as I watched No Country. She was so natural as this south Texas girl, I searched my mind for other movies and TV shows about the south, or the dusty desert Southwest. I could have searched forever and found nothing. Her most memorable role is from Gosford Park, where she looked very much the same, facially and in terms of hairstyle. In the picture above, she is both literally and figuratively in Dame Maggie Smith's shadow. She played Smith's Scottish maid Mary, who is the sleuth who figures out the murder mystery in the film. The Scottish accent was not put on. Ms. MacDonald is Scottish. The chameleon act for this movie is sounding like a Texas girl. I've said it before but it bears repeating. Dialect coaches today are simply amazing, and the actors who have a good ear for accents can be nearly anyone they want to be.

As for No Country, I liked the movie very much, but be warned ahead of time that this isn't a Coen Brothers comedy. This is more like their first film Blood Simple than it is like their more famous and funnier films. There are a few funny lines, but this is really a violent thriller. A lot of violence happens on screen and even more just barely off screen. It's somewhat related to Fargo, but Bardem's character is even scarier than Peter Stormare's, the partner of Steve Buscemi who puts him in the wood chipper.

Now playing: Ray Charles - You Don't Know Me
via FoxyTunes


Splotchy said...

Nice highlighting of some underappreciated actors!

Matty Boy said...

Underappreciated may be a fair assessment, but struggling would not be. All three of these folks are getting plenty of work, most especially Root, who is much in demand as a voice actor in cartoons.

dguzman said...

I actually enjoy the Coens' darker work; I didn't like O Brother and thought it was kinda overrated. Maybe I'll see this one, though I'll likely wait and just rent it. Thanks for the review!

Karla said...

ooh - just saw Stephen Root in the original Buffy movie (wow - what went wrong there?). He played a nutty high school principal. Very little screen time, but you remember him.

I forgot that Hillary Swank was in that. And a very small role for Ben Affleck. It's fun to go back 15 or 20 years and see a movie again.

Me not want to see No Country, though. I need more films about fluffy bunnies. And rainbows.

Matty Boy said...

Jodi was also wanting more fluffy bunnies. If I hadn't told her the basic idea going in, she says she would have absolutely hated it, and didn't really love it, though she is going to try to find ways to use the new vocabulary term "that colossal goat fuck out in the desert" in everyday conversation.

FranIAm said...

Provocative review Matty and you now have me intrigued.

Of course, it won't open here in the farthest reaches of Smalbania forever.

And I am so rarely back in NYC these days.


Matty Boy said...

I consider the possibilities of moving to other environs, but I would miss the chance to see a movie like this on the big screen if I moved to East Jesus, as Mina liked to any place with less than a million people in the city and outlying suburbs.