Bong Joon Ho’s movie Parasite made history at the 2020 Academy Awards, becoming the first non-English-language film to win Best Picture.
In this series, in reverse chronological order, I compare previous years’ Best Picture and Best International Feature to see how many other foreign-language films ought to have been given the top gong.
**** This article contains spoilers! ****
I’ve been a huge fan of the Coen Brothers for more than two decades — an admiration that began when I discovered Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? and Fargo in the late 90s. I was enthralled by the filmmakers’ ability to wield both humour and menace with equal skill, and felt compelled to go back to the beginning of their catalogue — where I found they started out very much on the darker side of cinema, with Blood Simple, before immediately shifting gears with their next film, Raising Arizona.
The Coens’ solitary Best Picture win falls on the darker side of that tonal spectrum — like Blood Simple, there are no laughs in No Country For Old Men. But, watching it again, I noticed it has much more in common, thematically and visually, with the baby-stealing screwball comedy Raising Arizona after all.
The film is about a conscientious man who, in a moment of weakness, snatches at the chance to make life better for he and his wife, but, in doing so, steals from a local businessman, who hires a psychopathic bounty hunter to track him down. Through fate and ill-fortune, a game of cat and mouse ensues.
Yes, there are myriad differences besides, but this synopsis accurately describes both No Country For Old Men and Raising Arizona. And it’s not just the plot structure that links the two films — they are both concerned with fate, conscience and happenstance (admittedly common themes in the Coens’ films).
Funnily enough, I only noticed the similarity between the two movies when Tommy Lee Jones stoops to inspect a peculiar mark on the wood-panelled wall of the protagonist’s trailer. It reminded me of Leonard Smalls stooping to examine a child’s scrawl of the word “FART” on the wood-panelled wall of the protagonist’s trailer.
No fun at all
The Academy rarely awards comedies with Best Picture, so it’s no surprise that the Coen Brothers’ only triumph is their most mirthless film. Devoid of levity, No Country deals solely in violence and suspense.
Consequently — though Josh Brolin’s performance as the masculine protagonist Llewelyn Moss is delivered with impressive mettle — it is the daunting man hunting him who steals the show. Javier Bardem’s turn as the relentless assassin Anton Chigurh won him Best Supporting Actor, and he deserved it. Bardem’s performance is a masterpiece of intimidation — even with the ludicrous haircut — and no doubt led to his casting as the Bond villain Silva in Skyfall.
I recall viewers likening Bardem’s character to the Terminator — certainly, he can’t be reasoned with, he can’t be bargained with; he doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear, and he (seemingly) will not stop. Ever… Until Llewelyn is dead…
It’s a comparison that Joel and Ethan Coen wanted to avoid, which is why Anton sports such a silly hairdo. They wanted him to look peculiar, unsettling, but absolutely not robotic. Regardless, when Bardem is practising self-surgery in a hotel room, it brings back the vision of Arnie slicing his forearm with a scalpel to reveal his metallic ligaments.
Death from the shadows
Bardem’s performance is especially impressive given that, once the unnerving nature of the character is established, one of Anton’s most frightening sequences is performed completely unseen — as shadows under a door, or the flash of a gun’s muzzle in the night. He stalks his prey, and mere glimpses are enough to put you on edge.
While Bardem could monopolise a review of this film — making yet another mockery of the “supporting actor” designation — it would be remiss to overlook Brolin’s performance as Llewelyn Moss.
Much like Nicolas Cage’s HI McDonaugh in Raising Arizona, Moss is a man of few words, many masculine talents, and a big conscience. He begins the film a hunter and a tracker, incisively reading the land, and collecting his spent bullet casings so as not to pollute the wilderness. When he happens upon the site of a drug deal gone fatally wrong, he tracks the moneyman across the desert to his last resting place, slumped under a tree.
Of course, Moss spends the rest of the film being hunted himself, and all because he returned to the scene of the crime to bring water to a dying drug-dealer. Big heart, big balls.
I think the main thing people took from this film, besides Bardem’s freakishly oppressive performance, is how Brolin’s Moss reacts with uncanny resolve in the face of danger — a real man’s man. Case in point, when Moss scrambles from a river while being chased by an attack dog, he knows he has to dismantle his gun, dry it as best he can in the seconds he has spare, reassemble it and then fire just as the dog leaps to sink its teeth into his limbs. The excitement is elevated by Moss’s methodical pragmatism.
Meanwhile, the third spoke in the film’s troika of characters is sheriff Ed Tom Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones in a thick Texan drawl. The sheriff remains a step behind the assassin and the hunter, and is consequently something of a third wheel to the narrative — there to reflect rather than participate.
It is the sheriff’s monologue that wraps up the film (once again like Raising Arizona, ending with a dream). However, though poignant the speech professes to be, it never tied the film satisfyingly enough for me to excuse the slow, anticlimactic ending.
Having said that, you have to admire the bravery of a script that concedes dreams are only interesting to the people having them, before closing your film with an old man describing his dream.
The genuine article
Up against No Country For Old Men is the only Austrian film ever to win Best-Foreign Language Film at the Oscars: The Counterfeiters. The story is loosely based on true events, about a man arrested in Nazi Germany for forging ID documents, sent to a concentration camp, and then forced to help the Nazis in their bid to destabilise enemy economies by flooding them with fake currency.
I was less than enthused to watch this film, as I was concerned it would be as harrowing as later winner Son of Saul — a movie that piles the horrors of the Holocaust so high you’ll suffer from vertigo.
On the contrary, The Counterfeiters’ central theme of guilt-ridden privilege is what makes it palatable.
A quick synopsis, first: Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch is a Jewish Slovak living in Germany in the 1930s. Sally makes a pretty deutschmark as a forger, and is considered the best in the country. But when he gets caught by a German police officer, Herzog, Sally is sent to a concentration camp.
In a bid to ameliorate his plight, Sally uses his art training to offer fawning portraits for the Nazi guards in the camp. This keeps him alive, and fed more than the rest of the inmates. His talents are soon spotted as potentially advantageous elsewhere, and Sally is transferred to Sachsenhausen to oversee the Nazis’ secret “Operation Bernhard” — spearheaded by the man who arrested him, Herzog, now promoted to the Reich’s equivalent of major. The goal is to flood the British and American economies with flawless counterfeit money.
While working on the forgery, Sally meets Burger — a character based on Adolf Burger, whose memoir, The Devil’s Workshop, was the basis for the film. The character of Burger survived Auschwitz, and despises the meagre luxuries he and the forgery team are afforded by the Nazis, like soft beds, clean (secondhand) clothes, and ample food. In an attempt to use his privilege in any way possible to fight the Nazis, Burger sabotages the dollar counterfeiting operation, for months. The counterfeiters are therefore at odds with each other, torn between hopeless martyrdom and comfortable collusion.
Honour among forgers
Sally’s arc progresses from selfish survival to reluctant revolutionary, perpetually treading the line between working for the Nazis and protecting those who would undermine them. Though arrogant, he has a good heart, and uses his position to curry favour for his team when they flounder, and bargains with Herzog to acquire drugs for a young boy in the team infected with TB.
As I mentioned earlier, it is the conflict between shame and survival that elevates the drama, while at the same time making the atrocities of the Holocaust visually tolerable — as Burger says: “It’s still a concentration camp, but the beds are soft.”
Many of the counterfeiters feel guilty for appreciating their modestly improved situation, while beyond the walls of their compound men and women are made to “test shoes” that are too small — essentially tortured to death by marching. We don’t see it — one of the forgers closes the window to shut out the noise — but you sense the shame of their collective relief that such punishments will not befall themselves.
Shutting out reality
Much like lauded classic Life Is Beautiful — about which I spoke with Juan Carlos Ojano on the One-Inch Barrier podcast — the film builds a bubble around its characters in the midst of the genocide. For Life Is Beautiful, this bubble is a fantasy of Guido’s devising, to protect his son from the horrors of reality. In The Counterfeiters, it is the bubble of the favoured inmates, eating well, dressed in clean clothes, and given a ping-pong table as reward for perfecting the sterling bank note.
Both bubbles are burst momentarily. In Life Is Beautiful, Guido carries his sleeping son through the smoke and happens upon an enormous pile of bodies that fills the frame — it is breath-taking in its sudden acknowledgement of the Nazis’ abomination. Likewise, in The Counterfeiters, though there are more frequent reminders of the Nazis’ brutality, the bubble is most emphatically burst when the camp is deserted by the guards, and the inmates from the rest of the camp liberate the others. When they appear at the small compound that the forgers had occupied, the difference in their condition could not be more severe — malnourished, dirty, sunken, hollow; those who endured the camp’s reality cannot believe that the counterfeiters are Jews themselves, so well fed and clothed they all appear.
It makes for an interesting dynamic in a film that you expect to only have one preoccupation: bearing light on the depravity of the Nazis. Instead, the film is more like a prison drama; one that, rather than depicting a universal camaraderie among the inmates as you might expect from a concentration camp film, it shows in-fighting and the vain attempts by some among the incarcerated to jostle for supremacy.
Sally is played by Austrian actor Karl Markovics, with a sullen face and cold eyes. He manages to perfectly balance the performance between pragmatism, pride and self-preservation, and as a protagonist he is uncommonly complex for this type of film. He is a criminal, apolitical despite the Nazis’ obvious crimes, and initially motivated only to improve his own lot. Indeed, it is witnessing the actions of the fearless Burger that inspires Sally in the closing scenes to rid himself of his ill-gotten fortune in a casino in Monte Carlo. Guilt, shame and pride — all emotions that in other films are buried by the horror.
I didn’t know which film would win when I started writing this showdown and had to come to my conclusion in the process of it. But now I am of no doubt that The Counterfeiters should triumph. There is so much to this film — it haunts you as much as it inspires you, makes you think as much as it makes you feel, and it has been one of my favourites of the Foreign-Language Film winners so far.
I will always have a lot of time for the Coen Brothers, but No Country For Old Men is a touch too ponderous in its closing act, to the point I felt unsatisfied when the credits rolled, despite having enjoyed so much of the journey. Besides, they’d already made a superior version of the film in 1987.
I continue to be surprised by this series — I had expected No Country to extend the lead for Hollywood, but the international filmmakers draw us to yet another tie: 6–6.
Find out next time which was superior out of Scorcese’s Hong Kong-inspired cop thriller The Departed and Germany’s Berlin Wall drama The Lives Of Others.
No Country For Old Men
Also in this series
- 2019: Green Book vs Roma
- 2018: The Shape of Water vs A Fantastic Woman
- 2017: Moonlight vs The Salesman
- 2016: Spotlight vs Son of Saul
- 2015: Birdman vs Ida
- 2014: 12 Years A Slave vs The Great Beauty
- 2013: Argo vs Amour
- 2012: The Artist vs A Separation
- 2011: The King’s Speech vs In A Better World
- 2010: The Hurt Locker vs The Secret In Their Eyes
- 2009: Slumdog Millionaire vs Departures
- 2007: The Departed vs The Lives Of Others
- 2006: Crash vs Tsotsi
- 2005: Million Dollar Baby vs The Sea Inside
- 2004: The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King vs The Barbarian Invasions