January 5, 2011 by Joseph Jon Lanthier
On Fernando Croce’s Facebook wall the esteemed critic Richard von Busack and myself debated a few of the film’s points. I offered this further analysis of the penultimate scene, which I feel is integral to the movie’s failure….
I’d be curious to hear a more detailed formal defense of the emotional success of the “night ride,” because to me its hollowness is entirely a matter of composition. The fact that it’s a montage feels like a cheat – they squeeze the passage of time but sacrifice the tension, as we know there’s no way a film will cross-dissolve to tragedy. I also feel that, in the novel, the scene’s heartbreak is entirely dependent on the rawness and plausibility of Mattie’s detailed retrospection — but in the film this is only represented with venom-coma’d, upward-angled perspective shots of dim, calligraphic trees. (They’re silkily contemplative in a way that doesn’t feel desperately numb, and distract from the harshness.)
Then there’s the altogether pleased-with-himself demeanor of Rooster, even in spite of the foreshadowed horse defense. He spends the whole ride grunting carnally, and appears to have located the best of both worlds in being able to rescue one life while simultaneously torturing and dispatching a “dispensable” one. (This makes the earlier scene with the natives suggestive of a food chain he adheres to rather than indicative of any coherent personal ethics.) This characterization might simply be more of the skewed moral fabric the Coens are crocheting their old west with, but it bristles against the soundtrack’s classically messiah cues and the awe-struck tones of the epilogue – thus my comment that they don’t know what “heroism” is supposed to look like anymore.
And I think the decision to depict Rooster as a “savage, hold most of the noble” was admirable, and closer to the novel’s spirit than the 1969 adaptation, but the resulting tone favors the brothers’ indifference to and occasional amusement by cruelty rather than Mattie’s final acceptance of compassionate slivers in a mostly dumb and uncaring world.
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