Amidst focused bursts of work and work related travel, scheduling times for *Only Non-work related activities like internalising equally well analysed and Very readable articles which are more salacious (or) sagacious in their approach, is great a way to get self rejuvenated. During my stay in Chandigarh, previous week, I did come across such kind rendered by Praveen Dass. The intense expression, which the writer managed to sustain throughout the article, gripped me with such a force that I decided to display it to a much wider audience.

{Reproducing Praveen Dass’s review on TOI, New Delhi / Chandigarh}

Commenting on the 2008 Academy Awards, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano observed that the years’ top two Oscar nominated films were “Sinister, filled with violence, and above all, without hope”. Both Joel and Ethan Coen’s “No Country for Old men” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There will be Blood” may indeed be guilty on all counts. But they do stand out instead as “Artful expositions on the darkness that lurks in our hearts”. And, they also seem to suggest that this darkness now gnaws at America’s very soul, which is why, to moralist dismay, the pair will ensure as classics. This is mostly on account of two singular characters who define both films. Like evil twins newly arrives, they come yoked together by some bleak Manichean world view, where a stifling gloom keeps blotting out the flickering light.

Daniel Plainview of “There will be Blood” is one – an imposing early American oilman, with some oily blackness seeping well into his soul. This is made amply clear by Blood’s first 15 minutes. Wordless, except for guttural grunts of men working and an almost caustic musical score, the film clearly puts upfront and centre Plainview’s single-minded prospector’s quest for riches from below. Its long narrative then grinds us past the character’s successes by way of his ruthless scheming; even jettisoning bonds of family, where and when found inconvenient. And, in depicting another major strand of 20th century America – religious zealotry, in the form of Eli, an ambitious Christian preacher who develops a complex relationship to deliver an oblique message for the new millennium.

Ultimately, like some overstretched alligator jaw, the film’s narrative finally snaps shut. Plainview – who’s now a 1920’s oil magnate – bullies, humiliates and arrives at closure in his relationship with a bankrupt Eli. Plainview does all that with a brutish glee, obliquely insisting that he is the devil – Eli’s putative “third revelation” the faithful were warned about – come now to finally claim his savage toll. Part character study, part canny allegory, this flawed epic is the film maker’s cue to us that American industry’s rapacious beginnings prefigure its current ills. It is, after all, a movie titled “There will be Blood” about a quest for oil in desert sands.

And in Daniel Plainview the film-maker has conjured a terrifying portent : Marx’s spectre of unbridled capitalism come to celluloid life – of fearsome glare and fiercer appetite.

“No Country for Old men” is a more measured but starker film about two men in 1980s’ Texas tangling with another force of nature. This would be the taciturn Anton Chigurh, a creature of purer distilled menace. His bizarre malevolence is made amply clear, in the film’s first 10 mins. The film’s plot revolves around Chigurh’s pursuit of a cache of stolen drug money spirited away by a lucky war veteran, and their pursuit, in turn, by an increasingly despondent small-town sheriff.

Always a step behind Chigurh and his prey, the elderly sheriff is a man who slowly comprehends that his time as lawman is up. Ranged against something as malefic and soulless as Chigurh, he’s unsure when hunter and hunted trade places in a random universe shot with chance. One segment, in particular, conclusively spears all hope: the shaken sheriff hauntingly contrasts his plight in a changing land with a fond, near elegiac dream of being protected by a father in his youth. The Coens, long feted as notoriously impish artists, have crafted their starkest, darkest, bleakest film, devoid even of the whimsy that lightened its own predecessor in their oeuvre, the masterly Fargo. Chigurh and Plainview represent something more sinister than simple archetypes of evil. By cleaving to some amoral code, both set themselves up as remorselessly methodical and far more than your average scenery chewing sociopath. Where Chigurh sticks to his morbid fascination with chance and death, tossing coins and making hapless victims decide their own fates, Plainview clings to some warped notion of success and satisfaction. This is truly mythic evil. Chigurh is malignant Beelzebub – a death demon unsparing of even crows – to Plainview’s inveigling Mephistopheles, deceiver of poor Californian landowners. Like No Country’s title, both figures recall Yeats. They’re his “rough beasts”; frighteningly unstoppable and slowly slouching off to be reborn in some distant time.

Indeed, quite a bit of recent Hollywood has been reflective of this murky mood. A perfect year of foreboding would have seen the other three Best Picture Oscar slots going to Zodiac, a film of an obsessive quest to fund a serial killer; Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, an even darker heist movie; and Eastern Promises, another austere study of the evil that men do, especially if they’re creepy Russian mafia types.

But No Country and Blood are a cut above in the epic sweepstakes. Darkness and Starkness are cloak and hat they don with thinly disguised relish, completely enshrouding, as the Vatican bemoans, a “moral conscience”, Oscar adulation for them is a blazing neon sign that the land of hope and glory is now missing quite a bit of both.