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Dispatch From the 2009 Toronto Film Festival

Part I, New Coen Bros. and Cormac McCarthy's The Road

From the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

By Patrick Z. McGavin

Stop Smiling correspondent Patrick Z. McGavin will file periodic dispatches from the 2009 Toronto Film Festival. Here, he discusses the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man and John Hillcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

TORONTO

Bisecting the Yorkville section of the city, Yonge Street moves north and south and offers a bit of the world immediately at hand: every imaginable form of food, nighthawk dive, strip joint, coffee shop, bar and high- and low-end retail outlet exist. (Even the Scientologists dreaded by locals are in on the act.)

Without extrapolating too much, Yonge Street is a fitting nexus for the city's international film festival. The finest characteristics of the street — the eclecticism, range and multiplicity of voices — are what the festival has always presented to the world. With nearly 300 films playing over a 10-day stretch in September, Toronto is a festival with many parts, some them of awkward and ungainly. It's also become an essential destination on the festival culture, and it is without question the most important North American film festival.

The Coen Brothers are certainly superstars in this world. They made their early reputation with their debut film, Blood Simple, 25 years ago. Their latest, A Serious Man, is their third film in successive years. Two years ago No Country for Old Men played the competition at Cannes and eventually walked off with the Academy award for best picture and direction. Last year, Burn After Reading opened the Venice film festival and had its North American premiere here. Now, A Serious Man forsakes the larger international exposure of Cannes and Venice to debut at Toronto. The Coens have always functioned as both merry pranksters and aggressive stylists. They have acquired their own brand of power, cachet and prickly independence, and they now offer their most sustained, brittle and misanthropic punch to the system.

Cast almost exclusively with relatively unknown New York theater actors, A Serious Man contains the autobiographical subtext of the Coens’ upbringing in the Minneapolis suburban Jewish milieu and transposes it on St. Louis Park in 1967. Opening with a Yiddish-language prologue about jealousy, guilt and animating the dead in a Krakow village, A Serious Man is a Bellovian comedy of manners that equals Herzog as a fanciful, hilarious and discomfiting story of a man's quest to reconcile his spiritual anguish and emotional faith against the material demands of daily existence.

The story centers on Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor of physics at a Midwestern university. (The Coens' father was an economics professor.) His essential humanity and rational belief system is undone by the comic escalation of absurdist, soul-killing personal developments: an emasculating and possibly unfaithful wife (Sari Lennick), an inept and impenicous brother (Richard Kind), a student trying to bribe him and vicious letter campaign threatening his tenure appointment. On a parallel narrative track, the man's son (Aaron Wolff) is preparing for his bar mitzvah.

The Coens have always reveled in their anti-narrative impulses. What appears initially as a somewhat unorthodox, freeform narrative is revealed as one of their most audacious scripts, one that conflates human inquiry about man's contentious relationship to God with nightmare anxiety and extreme social alienation. It's a trenchant, pungent metaphor for the assimilated Jew in which the professor is constantly thwarted in his effort to find some form of solace or sufficient explanation to God's less than benevolent view.

From the prologue to the devastatingly bleak finale, the film is a marvel of visual panache and stylistic concentration. The story interruptions and comic digressions — especially a long story told by a rabbi about a Jewish dentist who uncovers a remarkable finding in a goy patient — finds the perfect expression of wonder, befuddlement and a cosmic punchline. The Coens play off rhyming visual patterns linking character and fate, most spectacularly in a terrific sequence of Larry driving in traffic juxtaposed with the tragic disposition of the man cuckolding him, if not in commission than certainly intention.

It is likely to be denounced in some quarters as Jewish self-hatred, but self-critique seems the more operative and accurate cultural expression. The speed and intensity with which the Coens work gives their ideas both volatility and sting. In that regard, A Serious Man is the work of two free artists.

The Coens' adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men suggested a model adaptation that bent the source material to their brazen skills and worldview. Unfortunately, the long-delayed adaptation of The Road, McCarthy's dystopic Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a man and his son navigating a burnt out, depopulated landscape in the aftermath of an unspecified human catastrophe, somehow manages to be both overdone and undeveloped.

A Serious Man evokes a specter of annihilating menace and social apocalypse. The Road allegorizes it. But the Old Testament fury and vengeance prose of the book is deadened by the movie's visual monotony and flat repetition. The director is John Hillcoat, who made the terrific western The Proposition. Regardless of what you think of the result, the Coens have complete control of their material. In contrast, Hillcoat is a gun for hire who proves unable to shape the material to a persuasive whole.

Viggo Mortensen plays the unnamed protagonist, a survivor of some kind of holocaust that has ostensibly ended civilization. Humanity is reduced to largely two forms of being: the roving band of hunters and opportunists desperate for food, and individuals eager to hold on to some form of recognizable social order and family structure. The story proceeds — slowly, fitfully — as Mortensen and his son move toward the coast in a desperate bid to link up with some vestige of order and humanity. 

The tone is horrendously off from the start, as is the ill-conceived narration — some of the worst ever committed to film. Like the recent adaptation of Jose Saramago's Blindness, The Road painfully illustrates the difficulty — if not impossibility — of its cinematic realization. Talent is not enough to push through or transcend those limitations. The adaptation reproduces the book's episodes and nightmarish imagery, but drains them of all anguish and tension. Javier Aguirresarobe’s cinematography has some moments of raw, strange beauty, such as the chiaroscuro of the man and his son trapped in a jutting landscape of defenestrated trees. But those backdrops are increasingly the function of computer and digital technology rater than a director's point of view (like Ridley Scott's still staggering Blade Runner).

By casting a major star (Charlize Theron) in the role of the wife, the filmmakers amplify her part from a single chilling three-page appearance in the novel. It necessitates the jarring, repeated ruptures of the man's recovered memories, a device that only suspends or forestalls the narrative line. The film adaptation emphasizes arguably the weakest part of the book, which is the father's Herculean effort to ensure his son's safety.

As the critic John Powers pointed out, Marilynne Robinson's contemporaneously published Gilead is a far more transcendent and evocative treatment about the bonds of fathers and sons.  Hillcoat's efforts unduly sentimentalize the material, turning what is meant to be spellbinding and moving into the treacle and self-defeating.

 

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