Monday, December 31, 2007

Review: Sweeney Todd and No Country for Old Men

Burton’s Sweeney Todd takes a darkly humorous play and paints it a whole new shade of black; Sondheim laid on the laughs rather thickly between the gothic horror of Sweeney’s executions by razor, but Burton’s sense of humor is dry as the rat-picked bones in Mrs. Lovett’s cellar. That’s not to say the movie isn’t funny—I found myself laughing out loud—but only that the movie is funny in a way that made me wonder just a little bit if I was a sociopath for thinking so. Depp, Bonham-Carter, and the rest occupy a nearly monochrome London punctuated by gushes of arterial blood and rare glimpses of blue sky. Sondheim’s play sets up two Londons—Anthony’s London of wide-eyed big-city optimism, and Todd’s London of dark memories and a corrupt humanity. Burton seems far more interested in the latter: even in their happiest moments, his characters seem only half-alive, with pallid skin and deep circles under their eyes.

Depp and Bonham-Carter play their characters very much like their characters’ hairdos. Depp’s Todd is pure black malevolence, with just a shock of searing white charisma to hold a tattered existence together. This absolutism makes Depp especially effective in scenes where Todd is jaded and vengeful—the “Epiphany” and “My Friends” are show stoppers—but detracts from the scenes where he must show some heart. He seems unable to wrench out the necessary tenderness for either his relationship with Mrs. Lovett or his mourning for Lucy. One of the best things Michael Cerveris and Patty LuPone brought to the 2005 revival of SWEENEY TODD was their intense chemistry; at its high points, Todd and Lovett’s relationship crackled with sexual energy. That energy made it all the more poignant when Todd rejected Lovett in Act II. To Depp’s Todd, Mrs. Lovett never seems more than a means to an end, and the movie loses some emotional ground as a result.

Bonham-Carter’s Lovett is as whispy and ethereal as her own flyaway locks. Her tinny mezzo-soprano stands in sharp contrast with both Angela Lansbury’s and Patty LuPone’s rich altos, but it carves out a fascinating niche for Lovett’s character. While Lansbury’s Lovett was bug-eyed madness, and LuPone’s was fishnet-wearing dominance, Bonham-Carter’s Mrs. Lovett is passive-aggressive and pouting. Rather than commanding her half of the screen, Bonham-Carter seems to slip between the cracks, as a physical as well as a moral presence. She seems genuinely concerned and occasionally horrified about the moral implications of her business, even as she shoves another leg into the meat grinder. She also creates deep attachments to both Tobias and Todd, rendering Bonham-Carter’s performance one of the best of the film.

Two other character decisions struck me as unique. Rickman plays a Judge Turpin who transcends the conventional creepy old man: Turpin seems to actually love Johanna, or think he loves her, enough that he is hurt when she rejects him and pitifully hopeful when he thinks he can win her back. Particularly with the missing “Mea Culpa” scene, Rickman’s decisions brought a much-needed roundness to the judge’s character. And finally, Ed Sanders—who gave what would have been an astonishing performance as Tobias if he had been 20, let alone 11—ends the film with an gut-wrenchingly rational execution. Burton left out the lines at the end of the play that paint Tobias as crazy, and instead directs Sanders to glare down at the mourning Depp for a long while before slitting Depp’s throat. The result redefines SWEENEY TODD from a morality play to a nihilistic cycle of death in which everyone, even the upright Anthony, is culpable. In her final conversation with Anthony, Johanna rebuffs his optimism with a line that appears only in the film. She says grimly, “The nightmares will never go away.” Burton seems to agree, and he draws together a nightmare so masterfully gripping that one almost hopes he’s right.

No Country for Old Men shares a penchant for bloody executions with Sweeney Todd, and shares Todd’s nihilistic take on violence. It is written with the kind of rigorously concise dialogue that not only makes every word count, but uses the space between words to heighten tension and speak volumes about character. No Country read to me as a critique of the kind of determinism that drives Sweeney Todd, Judge Turpin, and Anthony Hope: all three believe in some way that people get what they deserve, and that their actions are only part of some great cosmic justice. No Country for Old Men is the story of a West Texas welder, Llewelyn Moss, who finds $2 million dollars, a truckbed of Mexican heroin, and five dead bodies—the byproducts of a drug deal gone wrong—and makes off with the $2 million. He doesn’t get away, however, before catching the eye of Anton Chigurh, a psychopathic hitman who aims to recover the money. Tommy Lee Jones plays an aging sheriff, Ed Bell, who just wants to recover the money before anyone gets hurt, and Woody Harrelson plays a savvy hired gun, Carson Wells, out to stop Chigurh from killing more innocent civilians.

Chigurh is a psychopath, but he’s no random killer, and he doesn’t justify his violence with a Sweeney Todd-esque “everyone deserves death” worldview. Instead, he adheres to a deterministic view of life and death: to Chigurh, even the coin he flips to determine whether to kill a gas station clerk has traveled to that gas station for that purpose, and it is not Chigurh’s place to interfere with that purpose. Later in the film, as Carson Wells bargains for his life with Chigurh, Wells says “you don’t have to do this,” and Chigurh just doesn’t understand. He does have to kill Wells, because Wells has it coming. Carson Wells seems to understand, for both he and Llewelyn Moss have similarly deterministic worldviews. Harrelson’s Wells thinks himself invincible, and if this were a movie that followed the tropes of its genre, he would be. So would the protagonist Moss, who makes Chigurh his “special project.”

But the characters who are most sympathetic at the end of the movie are those who question determinism and insist on their agency, even as their lives spin out of their control. Llewelyn’s wife, played by Kelly MacDonald, faces a coin flip of her own and responds by refusing to choose heads or tails: she forces Chigurh to confront his own role in his killings. And Tommy Lee Jones’ softspoken Sheriff Bell just gets out when he realizes he has lost control. Instead of putting himself at the mercy of fate, Bell recognizes his own limits and takes responsibility for them. And by recognizing a rigged game and refusing to play, Bell finds a way out of the cycle of nightmares that make both Todd and No Country so horrifying.