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10 Years Later: ‘No Country for Old Men’ is the Coens at Their Darkest and Most Political

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When Joel and Ethan Coen released No Country for Old Men ten years ago, the film was instantly recognized as one of the high-water marks of their filmography. With the exception of Fargo, none of their other films (many of them great) had managed to distill their directorial genius quite as potently.

No Country opens with the simultaneous introduction of two characters. One is via narration, with the voice of Tommy Lee Jones as rural Texan sheriff Ed Tom Bell nearly as weather-worn here as his face, conveying an overpowering sense of weariness. As he anonymously opines about the good old days of law enforcement, the visuals present a new and far more frightening evil: Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Chigurh is picked up by a police officer for unknown reasons, then driven silently to a police station. While the arresting officer takes a phone call, Chigurh sneaks up behind him and strangles him with his own cuffs. As Chigurgh squeezes the life out of the deputy, their boots scuff against the floor in a frenzy, creating an array of black marks right out of a painting by Franz Klein or Jackson Pollock.

Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men

The third lead is introduced during a botched hunting trip. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin, at the start of his curmudgeon phase) fails to bring down a pronghorn, and instead stumbles on the bloody aftermath of a massive drug transaction gone wrong. Amid the punctured bodies and rotting dog carcasses is a truck filled with dusty bags of Mexican heroin. A little farther away he finds a bag filled with two million dollars cash and unimaginable troubles. Chigurh, the psychopathic agent of chaos, has been sent to retrieve the bag, and Bell is left to find Moss before fate catches up with him.

The conversation around No Country largely (and quite understandably) focused on aspects of technique and performance, but absent from most critical appraisals was a discussion of the film as the Coens’ most political work to date. Beyond its simple tale of revenge and violence, No Country for Old Men is a portrait of the United States at the mercy of rampant ennui and encroaching economic devastation. Though set in 1980, it’s an astute summation of the country’s mood circa 2007.

At the time of the film’s release, the symptoms of what would become the financial crisis — and then the Great Recession — were just coming to light. The movie casts a particularly desolate portrait of Texas, but other suburban streets with foreclosure after foreclosure weren’t looking much livelier at the time. Llewelyn and his wife Carla Jean (played wonderfully and sensitively by Kelly Macdonald) live in a cramped trailer that would soon become familiar to thousands of people who had imagined owning their own homes before the financial collapse.

Josh Brolin in No Country for Old Men

Even more present than this economic anxiety is a sense of rampant, soul-sucking greed. Moss steals the money because it could change his life, but paltrier displays of greed are peppered throughout as well. In two mirror-image scenes, injured and bloodied versions of Moss and Chigurh are forced to pay hundreds of dollars to teenagers for their clothing, either as a replacement for Moss’ soiled clothes or as a sling for Chigurh’s broken arm. In both instances, the boys accept the transactions rather than trying to find medical help for the potentially dying men. They also devolve into squabbling over the money. In Moss’ case, another boy tries to extract even more money out of him in order to give up a half-drank beer; Chigurh’s savior refuses to share his bounty with his friend, even though part of the money was to buy silence from them both.

This portrait of greed can sometimes seem a bit off the mark, as if the Coens are laying this immorality at the feet of regular folks, but they also reveal a deeper, more fundamental culprit: corporate greed. In a possible homage to Point Blank (1967), the film reveals a corporate stooge pulling the strings of common criminals. Stephen Root’s unnamed executive is coldly efficient in his quest to retrieve his stolen money; he has no interest in the foot soldiers who meet their deaths over it, nor in the innocents unfortunate enough to cross Chigurh’s path as he attempts to retrieve it. If anything, the Coens underplay the depravity of Root’s businessman. A little over a year later, the economic collapse and startling greed of the country would become apparent to everyone, the financial services firm Lehman Brothers would suffer a staggering bankruptcy, and its CEO would appear on the cover of New York Magazine adorned with devil horns.

Despite No Country’s diagnosis of American rot, it’s unlikely that the Coen brothers intended the film to have those resonances. Most of their films have been steadfastly (even doggedly) removed from contemporary social concerns. The most obvious signs of the financial collapse and impending global recession were still a year away in 2007, so it’s understandable that critics would fail to connect the film to the turmoil that was starting to ravage rural and suburban America. Another film from 2007, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, also dissected the country’s contemporary sickness, though in more straightforward terms. Critics didn’t miss the themes, but they mostly attributed them to the Upton Sinclair book the film was loosely based on, not current economic angst.

Of course, No Country for Old Men endures not just because of its uncanny social resonances — it also benefits from one of the Coens’ best casts. Bardem’s Chigurh steals most of the spotlight, and understandably. Bardem, affecting a dead-eyed stare and sporting a strangely feminine bob hairdo, is far more frightening than any horror film monster. The emotionless rumble of his voice, coupled with his cruelly elaborate weapons, makes him particularly chilling.

Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men

The film is remarkably faithful to Cormac McCarthy’s novel, partly because the book is fairly short and can conveniently fit in a two-and-a-half hour film, but one area in which the movie departs is in the scope of Tommy Lee Jones’ character. In the novel, Bell is the main force of the narrative, and each chapter opens with one of his monologues. The film uses only a few of the monologues, usually layered over other scenes, and Bell is pushed into the background in favor of Moss and Chigurh. Yet Jones’ noble demeanor prevents his character from becoming an afterthought. He is the voice of reason and decency, and it’s no coincidence that the film opens and closes on him. Bell hopes that he’s not the last of his generation, but has a sinking suspicion that he probably is.

No Country also displays some of the Coen brothers’ most sophisticated visual storytelling. There’s a scene of Hitchcockian visuals in which Chigurh walks out of a house, leaving the audience to wonder if he has murdered its inhabitant. It’s not clear until Chigurgh looks down to inspect the bottom of one boot, then the next. The Coens choreograph many brutal deaths in the film, but one of the most impactful is depicted only by showing Chigurh’s search for any stray blood.

The Coen brothers have made some excellent movies in the wake of No Country for Old Men, but none have quite matched the impact of this film’s quiet dread. It envelops you while watching, then sits with you long after it’s finished. When the final scene cuts to black, the enormity of the movie’s despair sinks in. What little light there is on the horizon is fast fading. It’s an experience that won’t easily be forgotten.

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. grimrook

    November 12, 2017 at 8:32 pm

    reaching fool

  2. Joanna

    November 15, 2017 at 5:49 pm

    I finally saw No Country for the first time a few months ago. Holy cannoli, what a film! When you say “When the final scene cuts to black, the enormity of the movie’s despair sinks in,” that is the same feeling I got when I watched the film. I didn’t see the ending coming.

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Film

Bad Boy Robert Mitchum and the Soul of a Poet

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Career of Robert Mitchum

A Look Back at the Career of Robert Mitchum

The title of Lee Server’s acclaimed 2002 biography, Robert Mitchum:  Baby I Don’t Care (MacMillan), offers a perfect encapsulation of the eponymous actor:  a hard-partying Hollywood Bad Boy who didn’t give a damn what moralizing finger-waggers thought of him, or what his peers in the movie business thought, or the press, or even the public.  He was going to go his own way and to hell with you, and anyone positioning themselves to make strong objection was just as likely to get a punch in the nose as shown the actor’s broad back.  He worked hardest at conveying the idea that the thing he did for a living – acting – was also the thing he cared least about; an impression that may have been his most convincing performance.

The Bad Boy part of Mitchum’s reputation was honestly come by.  As a youth, he’d been booted from more than one school, hoboed around the country, boxed (thus his distinctive battered pug’s profile), and even done time on a southern chain gang.  It was a background which left him with a rebellious, take-no-guff streak he never lost, even as a movie star.  Two years after his star-making turn in Out of the Past (1947), he was famously busted for marijuana possession and even did a few months at a California prison farm (the conviction was eventually overturned although this wasn’t the same thing as Mitchum being innocent; he did smoke grass and continued to do so well into his AARP years).  On 1955’s Blood Alley, he threw a crew member into San Francisco Bay.  In 1968, as public opinion swung against the Vietnam War, Mitchum was advocating a policy of, “Nuke ‘em all.” In 1983, promoting the miniseries The Winds of War, Mitchum got into hot water for making anti-Semitic remarks, then refused to apologize even though they were made in jest and the actor had a number of close Jewish friends.  According to Server’s book, the actor smoked to his dying day—literally — although he was suffering from emphysema and lung cancer.

Out of the Past Robert Mitchum

Sometimes his rebelliousness could take on a noble hue according to Jean Simmons, his co-star on 1952’s Angel Face, and her then-husband, Stewart Granger, both of whom told the tale in the 1987 documentary series, Hollywood, the Golden Years:  The RKO Story.

Mitchum had a scene calling for him to slap Simmons across the face.  The actor — who was often quite courtly around his female co-stars — tried to fake the slap.  Autocratic director Otto Preminger demanded Mitchum slap Simmons for real, then called for take after take.  As Simmons’ face began to swell from the repeated blows, Mitchum decided enough was enough, turned and gave Preminger a how-does-it-feel slap across his face.  The infuriated director stormed up to RKO’s executive offices and demanded Mitchum be fired from the picture.  At the time, Mitchum was the closest thing the floundering RKO had to an honest-to-God marquee-value star and it was explained to the director that if anybody was going to leave the picture, it was going to be Preminger.

But the actor had a softer side as well, one few saw.  He wrote – and recorded — a variety of music including an oratorio produced by Orson Welles at the Hollywood Bowl.  He collected quarter horses.  His four-time leading lady Deborah Kerr told of Mitchum reciting self-penned poetry to her during the shooting of The Sundowners (1960).  Dwight Whitney, in a 1969 TV Guide piece, sensed this something else buried behind the actor’s defiantly disinterested front, writing that somewhere inside Mitchum “…lies imprisoned the soul of a poet.”

Angel Face - Robert Mitchum

As for the indolence Mitchum affected and often bragged about, and his feigned indifference to his profession (“Movies bore me, especially my own”), this, too, was true – Sidney Pollock, his director on The Yakuza (1974) compared him to “an extremely powerful but lazy workhorse” — but only to a point.  In his tenure at RKO from the mid-1940s well into the 1950s, this “lazy” actor was a studio reliable, often pumping out several films each year, once even working on three films simultaneously.  Despite making noises several times in his later years about retiring, he kept appearing on either the big or little screen nearly every year of his life.

He would say he only made movies for the money, or to meet sexy women, or to score pot, and certainly bland time-killers like Young Billy Young (1969), The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969), The Wrath of God (1972), The Amsterdam Kill (1977), and Breakthrough (1979) – to name just a very few – seemed to substantiate his point.  But despite claiming he just “took what came and made the best of it,” he also regularly gravitated to artistically ambitious projects and their demanding directors i.e. The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Charles Laughton; Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) and John Huston; The Sundowners and Fred Zinneman; Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and David Lean. The Blood Alley incident notwithstanding, more typically he was a no-fuss-no-muss performer, on time, not only knowing all his lines but usually the lines of everyone else.  “I’ve survived,” he once said, “because I work cheap and don’t take up too much time.”

robert mitchum night of the hunter

Stylistically, he was, in many ways, the first “modern” movie actor which is why his performances still hold up decades later.  He didn’t look like other actors of his time and certainly not like those of the generation before, didn’t sound like them, didn’t move like them.  What one actor did with a sob, he did with a small sigh; where another actor needed a few lines, Mitchum could give the same sense with a slight shrug. Look at his breakthrough performance in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) as a WW II infantry officer during the meat grinder Italian campaign.  Sitting over the letters he’s writing to families on behalf of the dead, his broad shoulders sag just a little, his deep, slow voice gets a fraction deeper and slower — “I know it ain’t my fault that they get killed,” he tells war correspondent Ernie Pyle (Burgess Meredith), “but it makes me feel like a murderer” — and that’s all it takes to convey a man both bone-weary and heartsick over the letters he’s written today, and the letters he knows he’ll be writing tomorrow, and the day after that and on and on.

His battered boxer’s looks, a voice that could seductively purr or fall into a thick, liquory rasp, his hooded eyes looking down from atop a massive chest combined to give him an intimidating physical presence more lithely athletic actors – Fairbanks, Gable, Flynn, Lancaster – didn’t have.  He was threatening in a way they weren’t, and, more than that, there was something unmistakably carnal about him.  The sight of Mitchum, his bare skin gleaming with swamp water, shot in a severe up-angle by director J. Lee Thompson in Cape Fear (1962), his lazy eyes gleaming as he stalks Gregory Peck’s daughter in the Georgia backwoods is a portrait of something primordial, of a walking, lusting, unrestrained id.

“Up there on the screen,” he once said, “you’re thirty feet wide, your eyeball is six feet high…”  That in mind, few actors of his time understood, as he did, the value of stillness on the screen.  He seemed fully aware of how much presence he radiated, how little he had to do to pull focus:  a nod of the head, a raised eyebrow accompanied by the slightest dip in his voice.  He walked off with Cape Fear, taking it away from star (and producer) Gregory Peck; not an inconsiderable feat considering Peck would win the Best Actor Oscar the next year for To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).  Mitchum has a scene in a bar sitting across from Peck as he explains the why and how behind his vindictive campaign to destroy Peck and his family.  The heart of the scene is two long, almost uninterrupted takes – a near-monologue done in close-ups.  Watch his puffy eyes switch from sadistic glee to ice-cold hate, the lazy drawl of his voice slide from malicious amusement to blatant threat.  The adjustments are incredibly small, yet laser-focused enough to burn a hole through the screen.  In the light-hearted Western El Dorado (1966), using the same economical style, he was one of the few actors who could hold the screen against the iconic John Wayne.  He found the humor in Leigh Brackett’s spry script without ever overtly playing to the joke.  In a scene largely crafted by himself, he plays against his own he-man lady killer image as he sits in a bath embarrassed by the woman friend who must pass through the room, pulling a hat down low over his head, covering his face with his hands and muttering, “I’ll close my eyes.”

Cape Fear - Robert Mitchum

Throughout his career, he worked across the spectrum of genres, although never as prolifically as he did during his years at RKO:  Westerns both period (Blood on the Moon, 1948) and contemporary (The Lusty Men, 1952), war movies (One Minute to Zero, 1952), dramas (Till the End of Time, 1946), romantic comedies (A Holiday Affair, 1949), but making his biggest impression in a series of film noirs which, in the late 1940s/early 1950s, had become the troubled studio’s mainstay.

Characteristically, Mitchum talked them down, saying, “RKO made the same film with me for ten years.  They were so alike I wore the same suit in six of them and the same Burberry trench coat.” Nevertheless, he was anointed a leading man – and created a never-forgotten noir icon – in Out of the Past (1947). That would be how the young Mitchum would be remembered, in his fedora and trench coat, a smoldering cigarette dangling from his lips.  There had been noirs before Mitchum, and there’d be a long parade of noirs with and without Mitchum after Out of the Past, but the movie and Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey became the genre’s gold standard.  Addicted to one of noir’s most toxic femme fatales (Jane Greer), Bailey is doomed and knows it, is resigned to it, scratches around for whatever little triumph he can find amidst his ruination.  When Greer frets, “I don’t want to die!” Mitchum’s Bailey replies in that resigned, prosaic way only Mitchum could, “Neither do I, baby, but if I have to, I’m gonna die last.”

Because he made so many indifferent movies, and his style was so minimalist, the precision of his work was often missed; Mitchum bios often use the words “underrated” and “underappreciated.” But he never walked through a film (though he would often say otherwise), and in even some of his weaker movies he showed a depth he was rarely given credit for.  Not as a Stranger (1955) was a forgettable Noble Young Doctor sudser, but Mitchum still has his moments.  In his best one, he stands over an operating table, having failed to save the life of the older doctor (Charles Bickford) who has been his doting father-like mentor.  Cloaked in a surgeon’s cap and mask, Mitchum has nothing to work with but his eyes, but he offers up two, bottomless abyssals of heartbreak.

In the first years after he left the RKO stable, he produced a gallery of solid work ranging from “merely” entertaining (The Enemy Below, 1957) to notable (The Sundowners; Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison; Home from the Hill, 1960), but chief among them were two Villain-Hall-of-Fame-caliber performances in The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear.

Mitchum would often say his Reverend Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter was his favorite role, and understandably so.  To truly understand his performance is to be impressed with its deftness for Charles Laughton, in his only directorial effort, is not rendering reality, but a child’s fairy tale complete with guardian angel (Lillian Gish) and boogie man.  Mitchum smoothly morphs from fire-and-brimstone preacher showing the battle between Good and Evil with locked fingers tattooed “Love” and “Hate,” to something less than human skulking in the shadows of Gish’s yard as he stalks two children in her charge, howling like a wounded animal when he’s sent running by a blast from feisty Gish’s shotgun.

robert mitchum night of the hunter

The Night of the Hunter has always had more artistic stature than Cape Fear, but the latter is surely the more viscerally delicious watch.  The best way to measure Mitchum’s portrayal of total depravity as vengeful convicted rapist Max Cady is to run it up against Robert De Niro’s take on the same character in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake.  Brilliant though De Niro can be, his busy performance, his spindly form, his cartoonish southern accent are outgunned by Mitchum’s stillness, his Tiger tank massiveness, his lazy, raspy drawl:  “I got somethin’ planned for your wife and kid that they ain’t nevah gonna forget.  They ain’t nevah gonna forget it…and neither will you, Counseluh!  Nevah!” One IMDB poster commenting on both performances put it best:  “Robert De Niro acted scary, Robert Mitchum was scary.  Makes all the difference in the world.”

By the 1960s, a middle-aged Mitchum was getting saggier in the jaw line and thick in the middle, and the memorable roles now came few and far between.  Though he’d continue to appear in film and TV shows into the year of his death, his best late-career performances came in the 1970s with three aces in a row:  The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), The Yakuza, and Farewell, My Lovely (1975).  The paunchy Mitchum was perfect for the rumpled Philip Marlowe in Farewell; he could’ve been playing a worn-out, older version of one of his 1950s noir characters.  And director Sidney Pollock managed to get the best out of his lazy workhorse in the Japan-set Yakuza, with Mitchum as a man caught between conflicting loyalties and cultures, his still broad shoulders sagging under the weight of the unintended damage he inflicted on a Japanese family during the post-WW II occupation.  Mitchum’s Harry Kilmer is nearly broken by the wrongs he cannot right, and the despair of trying to find an honorable end to a tragedy which seems only to compound with each attempt to do so.

Mitchum

But the best of the lot – and one of his all-time great performances – was as Eddie “Fingers” Coyle, a bottom-tier Boston hood who has spent most of his life “…watchin’ other people go off to Florida while I’m sweatin’ out how I’m gonna pay the plumber.”  There may be no better portrait of life at the lowest levels of organized crime, and his Eddie Coyle is at once reprehensible yet pitiable, a small-timer victimized by big-timers, double-dealing Feds, and his own bad luck.

Mitchum worked so long – over a half-century – and made so many movies that even after stripping out the misfires and the duds, one is still left with a sizable body of impressive work representing every stage of his career, and a gallery of some of the most memorable characters in the American film canon.  Not bad for an actor who never claimed more than minimal talent or interest in his profession, pretending he’d more-or-less walked through his career, a 50-odd year journey of which he said, “I never changed anything, except my socks and my underwear.”

  • Bill Mesce
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Anime

‘Weathering With You’ Isn’t Quite the Storm It Wanted to Be

Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering With You delivers a gorgeous film that doesn’t quite resonate as much as it wanted to.

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Weathering With You Hina

Climate change and global warming have been topics of concern and discussion for years now, with melting ice caps and rising ocean temperatures being some of many signs. Director Makoto Shinkai — acclaimed the world over for his 2016 work Your Name — aims to show just how at the mercy humans are to the weather with his newest animated film, Weathering With You. Although he presents a visually stunning depiction of Mother Nature in all her various moods, Weathering With You ultimately lacks the storming power it seeks to bear upon its audience.

Tokyo has been having a particularly rainy year, seeing precipitation almost every day and nary a sight of the sun or clear blue skies. It’s during this unusual time that high school boy Hodaka arrives in the metropolis seeking escape from the suffocating life he had on his island. The young teenager naturally has trouble finding his bearings on his own in the oftentimes unforgiving hustle and bustle of the city. It’s in these early scenes that Weathering With You has some of its strongest moments, depicting the uglier side of Japanese society not often seen in anime, while also highlighting Hodaka’s strength of character to make it on his own. 

Weathering With You Hodaka and Hina

As Hodaka gradually carves out his own place in the city, he eventually has an encounter with a young girl named Hina. Matching her sunny and cheerful disposition, Hina has the ability to make it stop raining and have the sunshine in very localized spots by praying to the sky. In a place where the rain never ceases, it’s easy to see why Hodaka latches onto Hina to use for the greater good (while also making a little pocket change along the way).

“The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air caught by the leftover humidity.”

Gloomy skies and damp grounds can take their toll on one’s mood and psyche, which someone who lives in such a climate can surely relate to. Even the briefest moments of sunshine revitalize us and give a glimpse of the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Hodaka and Hina’s “100% Sunshine Girl” services to those in need of that light boldly underscore that fact, and make for a strong argument for how the weather affects us all beyond its objective physicality, along with providing some much-appreciated levity to the story. 

That power of weather is beautifully illustrated by CoMix Wave Films’ stupendous animation efforts. The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air, caught by the leftover humidity. Tokyo itself isn’t to be outdone either, with its streets running the gamut between peaceful neighborhoods to grimy and dark back alleys with dilapidated buildings. The animation is punctuated by the return of Japanese band RADWIMPS, who create numerous memorable tracks to complement the wild swings in mood that weather can elicit.

That makes it all the more unfortunate, however, that the greater narrative is so weak.

The progression of Weathering With You is made painfully obvious right from the outset of the story — so much so that it’s hard to wonder if it’s actually the set-up for a bait-and-switch. As a result, much of the first half of the film is simply waiting for the other shoe to drop, making it difficult to really settle in and become intimate with its characters. 

Weathering With you Hodaka and Hina

This would be less of an issue if the cast had smaller interactions that were a delight to watch, but they fall short in that regard as well. All of the characters have a charm to them for sure — with Hina’s younger elementary school brother, Nagi, putting modern playboys to shame being a particular standout — but the story never quite makes a compelling case as to why they are as close as they are, especially Hina and Hodaka. They’re fun enough to watch be together, but don’t quite make that emotional attachment with the viewer that the story wants to create.

That lack of an emotional connection is distinctly felt in Weathering With You’s second act, when unnecessary confrontations and bizarre plot directions converge to create an artificial sense of stakes amidst a central conflict that would have been fine on its own. What’s meant to strengthen the impression of the characters’ bonds instead cheapens it, undermining the already faulty progress the first half did make. The result is a narrative that’s hard to care about, although its ending does leave the viewer with some potentially interesting questions to ponder.

Weathering With You is far from a bad movie, however. It has a clear direction and vision with a message to say about our climate crisis. The characters are endearing enough, and there are a handful of heartfelt scenes because of that. It also cannot be understated just how drop-dead gorgeous the animation is. The story, however, is simply too straightforward for its own good, resulting in an experience that is at times enjoyable, and at others plain boring.

And that’s only when being judged in a vacuum on the movie’s own merits. When compared to Shinkai’s recent masterpiece that is Your Name, it’s hard to see Weathering With You as anything but a disappointing follow-up. That’s perhaps the film’s greatest weakness, but fortunately, it’s one that Shinkai’s next work won’t have, and we can still look forward to it because of that fact.

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Film

Let’s Remember Why ‘Tremors’ is a Beloved Cult Hit

The monster movie that breaks new ground.

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Tremors Movie Review

Tremors, 30 Years Later

Thirty years ago, this week, one of the best films of 1990 was released.

Tremors didn’t make a big splash in theaters. The film ended up grossing $16,667,084 at the domestic box office, which while making a profit due to its $11 million budget, was still below projected numbers. To be fair, this was a film about carnivorous subterranean worms— and it didn’t help that it was dumped in the cold of winter during what is arguably the slowest time of the year for the box office. Thankfully, however, Tremors found a second life on VHS where it became one of home video’s biggest success stories. More importantly, Tremors become a beloved cult hit.

The Script

Much has been said about the cast of Tremors which I’ll get to shortly, but what stood out the most watching it again, is the screenplay from S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock, who both previously penned Short Circuit and Batteries Not Included. Sure, Tremors is a B movie, but it also boasts a tightly-knit script in which every scene; every action; every story beat; and every line of dialogue sets up a chain of events that gives every character a motive and reason to react the way they do. And despite one poorly executed sequence (I’m referring to the pole-vaulting montage), Tremors is a lean, mean movie without an ounce of fat to be found anywhere else.

Tremors Pole Vaulting Scene

The plot isn’t complex per se, but there’s something oddly comforting in the simplicity of it all. Tremors takes place in the Nevada desert near a small town called Perfection with a population of only 14 residents who are left to defend themselves against the deadly subterranean creatures. It’s the perfect setting for a monster film since the town itself is isolated. And with only one road leading to civilization, the openness of the desert landscape enhances the desolation of it all. And since the town of Perfection is so far removed from the rest of society, it soon becomes clear that nobody will ever come and save them. Instead, the townsfolk must work together; overcome the odds, and destroy the creatures. And when that fails, they must attempt to scale the rocky mountaintop where the worms are unable to travel underground. It’s getting there that becomes the problem.

Val and Earl - Tremors

Val and Earl

At the heart, and at the center of the eccentric cast of characters is Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward playing Valentine McKee and Earl Bass, a pair of modern-day cowboys working as handymen who become would-be heroes when they stumble upon the shock-sensitive killer worms. Over the years, the two actors have become less renowned for their comedic roles, but Tremors if anything, showcases their talent and range. And while Kevin Bacon with his sexy smile and pretty boy looks is by far the biggest star; it’s their irresistible chemistry that brings their characters to life. They make such a great comedic team and if you replaced Ward with any other actor at the time, there’s no guarantee that Tremors would have been this much fun to watch.

In fact, the two actors work so well together that Fred Ward provides a much better foil for Kevin Bacon than Finn Carter’s Rhonda, a.k.a. the underwritten love interest who is assigned to travel to the town and monitor the seismology readings in the desert. Not long after Rhonda arrives, the people in the town start disappearing – or worse, they end up dead, leaving very little time to establish any chemistry between her and Val— thus making the big kiss, in the end, feel a little out-of-place. But don’t blame the screenplay writers— the original ending of Tremors featured Val and Earl riding off into the sunset, with no hint at any potential romance between Val and Rhonda. Unfortunately, test audiences were not pleased and somehow the producers convinced the filmmakers to quickly reshoot the final scene— just another one of many examples of why studios should not rely on any focus group to provide feedback. In the end, the love interest feels somewhat lost in the shuffle.

Tremors Kevin Bacon and Finn Carter

The Gummer Family

It doesn’t take long before it becomes apparent that there’s something unnatural roaming the desert and feeding on human flesh. Once Rhonda checks her readings and determines that the threat is coming from underground, Tremors begins to slowly open up and introduce us to the supporting cast which includes Reba McEntire and Michael Gross as the Gummer family, a pair of overzealous, gun-crazy survivalists. McEntire and Gross are so good here, they essentially steal the spotlight from the rest of the cast. In one of their most memorable scenes, the two are forced to take shelter in their basement and defend themselves against one of the giant man-eating worms— and just when it looks like they are going to run out of ammunition, the camera pans left to reveal the bunker holds enough guns and firepower to accommodate a small army. It’s just one of many examples of how Tremors takes a simple concept and maximizes it for full effect.

As much as Tremors is remembered today for the performances of Bacon and Ward, it’s the work of the entire cast that brings the movie to life. It really is great casting considering the small budget, and everyone pulls their weight, serving up the quick-witted dialogue in a way that makes it all feel more natural– and yes that even includes Robert Jayne as the annoying teenage brat, Melvin Plug. I especially like the performance by Victor Wong, a character actor who had roles in films like 3 Ninjas and Big Trouble in Little China. Here he plays the ill-fated Walter Chang who is killed in a scene that features some of the film’s best special effects.

Director Ron Underwood

Tremors was the first movie Ron Underwood directed and by far his best. Now known as a go-to director for many successful TV shows, Underwood keeps things moving briskly and finds new clever ways to draw out tension with impressive camera work, especially the shots that show the point of view of the creatures as they stalk their victims. Along with Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski, Underwood frames his exterior shots in a way that constantly reminds viewers how small the town is and how isolated it is. It’s also worth noting how difficult it is to shoot a horror movie outside in the middle of the desert where you can never truly escape the sunlight, and yet director Ron Underwood uses the setting to his advantage and frames his actors in such a manner that the landscape emits a general feeling of emptiness, which both mirrors the town’s small population and the people themselves who are desperate for a change.

Tremors evokes the populist spirit of ‘50s and ’60s B-movies without ever resorting to parody, nor does it ever feel familiar. Instead, Underwood reinvigorates its genre tropes with a finely balanced combination of horror and humor— and despite its tongue-in-cheek script, Underwood never allows it to venture into full-on camp. There is tension and suspense in every one of the action scenes and like many classics that came before it, Tremors focuses less on its oversized monsters and more on their victims and how these people react to attacks by these giant creatures. Even in the bright daylight, Tremors manages to create enough suspense to keep viewers at the edge of their seats.

Tremors 1990

Creature Design

Apart from taking inspiration from classic monster movies, Tremors owes a lot to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws— so much so, that the original title for Tremors was actually Land Sharks. Much like how the shark in Jaws travels underwater while stalking its prey, in Tremors, the 30-foot-long carnivorous worms known as Graboids, travel underground. And like Jaws (arguably the quintessential B movie), the creatures in Tremors are rarely seen. Instead, the largely invisible creatures can burrow fast enough to devour the entire town if given the opportunity— making them deadly and genuinely menacing.

Another clever inclusion by the screenplay writers was the idea to have these Graboids respond to seismic vibrations. While blind and unable to track their prey’s scent, they do have acute hearing, which means any slight movement or sound can cost you your life. In arguably the best scene of the entire film, Kevin Bacon’s Val is left to stand completely still and silent while the worm-like creatures who circle his feet reveal their razor-sharp fangs as they desperately search for their next victim.

Tremors 1990 Michael Gross

It’s a credit to the creature design that I never once questioned the reality of the Graboids. Along with a team of over 50 visual effects wizards, the filmmakers were able to bring their creations to life with a mix of old school prosthetics, animatronics, and computer-generated imagery. Tremors may be at times funny, but this isn’t the sort of film that has viewers pointing at the screen and laughing at obviously cheesy effects. Make no mistake about it: the monster effects by Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis (who previously worked on Alien and The Terminator) is truly impressive, especially given the limited budget they had to work with.

Tremors Creature Design

Soundtrack

The one and only aspect of Tremors that I’ve never liked was the music heard at the start and at the end of the film. To my surprise, I later learned that composer Ernest Troaost’s musical score for the film went mostly unused since the studio didn’t like it and, later they hired composer Robert Folk to write a new score. Only a few of Troost’s country-themed songs made it into the final cut and sure enough, they are the songs I dislike. That said, Folk’s compositions perfectly match the visuals and heighten the suspense during the film’s most action-packed scenes.

Tremors 1990

Legacy

Tremors wasn’t in any way groundbreaking since it borrowed liberally from many other monster movies, yet somehow the film became such a hit, that it spawned four direct-to-video sequels (Tremors 2: Aftershocks, Tremors 3: Back to Perfection, Tremors 5: Bloodlines and Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell)— a direct-to-video prequel (Tremors 4: The Legend Begins), and even a television series. More so, the success of Tremors resulted in many copycats but none of them (save for James Gunn’s Slither) have been able to perfectly match the potent mixture of sharp dialogue, deadpan humour, and horror.

It’s easy to see why Tremors ultimately became a success and why it remains a fun and engaging experience, decades later. The plot is fully realized constantly keeping things exciting. It has plenty of spectacular set-pieces, thrilling action scenes, and plenty of quotable throwaway dialogue. Along with the charismatic cast, superb direction, great script and terrifyingly real effects, Tremors stands the test of time. Many have tried to match Tremors but most have ultimately come up short. Movies like this come around once every few years.

  • Ricky D
Tremors Movie Anniversary
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