UPDATE: My latest thoughts on the movie, including a response to comments made here.
“No Country for Old Men,” the Coen brother’s latest film, has received 89 favorable reviews out of 90 on rottentomatoes.com where my review will now join the other distaff take.
Joel and Ethan Coen: masters of anti-climax
Many critics describe it as a return to the halcyon days of “Fargo” and they are partially correct. Like “Fargo,” “No Country for Old Men” exploits local color–in this case the laconic twang of West Texas. Unlike “Fargo”–unfortunately–the movie is structurally flawed with an ending that makes the final episode of “The Sopranos” look like a textbook example of dramatic conclusion.
Defying the normal audience’s appetite for a meaningful resolution, “No Country for Old Men” ends with a whimper rather than a bang. To a certain extent, this is necessitated by the plot of the Cormac McCarthy novel, about whose work I will have more to say. I am going to reveal the conclusion of the movie momentarily so those that plan to spend ten dollars or more to be ultimately disappointed should read no further.
Cormac McCarthy: poet laureate of redneck dystopia
There are three major characters in “No Country.” In the opening scene we are introduced to Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin in an impressive performance), a Vietnam veteran who is hunting antelope in the arid backcountry where much of the action takes place. He happens upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone bust, with dead or dying Mexicans lying on the ground next to their all-terrain pickup trucks equipped with high-power spotlights. After Moss notices a briefcase containing two million dollars, he absconds with it in a gesture highly reminiscent of the characters in the 1998 “A Simple Plan,” a much more successful essay on the moral and physical hazards of appropriating ill-gotten gains.
Anton Chigurh, a capable but uninteresting killer
Hired to track down the cash is one Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a hit-man who lugs around a pneumatic stun-gun with a captive bolt that is ordinarily used for killing cattle. Chiguhr uses his to knock out the locks on doors behind which reside his intended victims or to knock out their brains slaughterhouse-style. Of indeterminate nationality, Chigurh is occasionally inspired to play with his intended victims, allowing them to toss a coin to decide their fate. His character is a mixture of a less interesting version of the Samuel Jackson hit-man in “Pulp Fiction” and the very first Terminator–the unrelenting evil one. Entirely missing is the kind of bent humor found in the kidnappers in “Fargo,” who despite being creeps were a source of amusement.
The third major character is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, played by Tommie Lee Jones. Naming the character Ed Tom is a demonstration of Cormac McCarthy’s resolve to make his characters authentically “good old boy.” He is the counterpart of the female cop lead character in “Fargo.” Unlike her, Sheriff Bell never really gets involved in apprehending Chigurh or any other bad guys. His main purpose is to serve as an outlet for McCarthy’s cracker-barrel philosophy–a mixture of Reagan-era conservatism and nihilism. At one point, Bell tells a colleague that everything started going downhill when young people began to dye their hair green and put spikes through their noses.
The movie actually moves along quite nicely until the final fifteen minutes or so. It consists almost entirely of Chigurh trying to track down and kill Llewelyn Moss in a manner that evokes all of the Terminator flicks. This pursuer is made out of flesh-and-blood, however. After Moss blasts him with a shotgun, Chigurh retreats to a seedy motel (“No Country” is replete with some of the scuzziest motels and hotels ever seen in a film) and performs surgery to remove the shotgun pellets from his knee. With the Terminator flicks floating in the back of my mind, I almost expected to see metal rods instead of bones beneath his flesh.
Up to this point, you are expecting a grand finale with the three major characters shooting it out. You hope for Llewelyn Moss to come out on top, since his character is especially engaging and resourceful. For example, he is adept at hiding the loot in the ventilation system of one run-down motel. I kept expecting something like the conclusion to the wonderful 1972 Sam Peckinpah movie “The Getaway” based on a Jim Thompson novel. Like “No Country,” “The Getaway” involves likable people (Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw) trying to elude hit-men hired to retrieve ill-gotten gains. It also includes some truly low-class motels and hotels.
However, McCarthy–in keeping with his nihilistic view of the universe–has Moss killed off before such a climax can even take place. Perhaps in an attempt to one-up McCarthy on anti-climaticism, the Coen brothers have him killed off-screen. Once he is gone, you really lose interest in the film entirely. Or at least I did, based on my take on the film compared to other critics on rottentomatoes.com. I can say that my wife had the same exact reaction. When we spotted Moss’s dead body, we turned to each other with a look of consternation as if to say, “What the fuck was that about?” When we returned home after the movie, I told her that our common reaction to the film reflected the strength of our marriage. If she had told me that this was the greatest movie she had seen all year, I probably would have filed for divorce.
In pouring through the mainstream media trying to find a review that jibed with my own, I could only turn up one. Writing in the Washington Post on November 9th, Stephen Hunter opined:
Derived from the hyper-violent Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, it’s a high-end “literary” thriller that traffics as much in ideas as in thrills, sometimes to its own detriment. It follows as a Vietnam vet (the time is the ’80s) antelope hunting comes across a Texas drug deal gone bad. Bodies, guns, blood, flies and folly are everywhere on the arid plains. He finds a huge chunk of money and makes off with it; alas, having promised a dying man a drink of water, he heads back, scotching his successful getaway. He is observed by other drug smugglers, and the chase begins.
You can’t say it cuts to the chase. There was never anything to cut from to the chase. It’s all chase, which means that it offers almost zero in character development. Each figure is given, a la standard thriller operating procedure, a single moral or psychological attribute and then acts in accordance to that principle and nothing else, without doubts, contradictions or ambivalence. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin; see story on Page 33), the laconic vet who finds the stash, is pure Stubbornness. His main pursuer, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem in Robert Wagner’s haircut from “Prince Valiant”), is Death, without a pale horse. Subsidiary chaser Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) is Pride, or possibly Folly. Tommy Lee Jones appears in the role of Melancholy Wisdom; he’s a lawman also trying to find Llewelyn but not very hard. He’d much rather address the camera and soliloquize on the sorry state of affairs of mankind, though if he says anything memorable, I missed it.
Despite his reputation as being some kind of latter-day Faulker, I have a sneaking suspicion that McCarthy is an elevated version of Jim Thompson, or some other pulp fiction writer. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem capable of writing a satisfying conclusion to a novel as the best mass market writers know how to do. One suspects that this is simply a function of a worldview that amounts to a redneck dystopia.
If I had more time on my hands, I might take a look at McCarthy’s novels to try to extract out the rotten core and examine it under a strong light, especially the 1985 “Blood Meridian” that is described on the official website of the Cormac McCarthy Society as a dismantling of “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization, so that victims and their antagonists become indistinguishable.” The write-up continues:
In one celebrated scene, a column of mercenaries the kid has joined encounters a Comanche war party herding stolen horses and cattle across the desert. The kid barely escapes as the Indians, still vividly dressed like eldritch clowns in the garments they have stripped from their last white victims, annihilate his companions.
Just what the world was waiting for, a Faulkneresque novel that depicts American Indians as wanton killers.
Nation Magazine, September 12, 2005
It’s a Man’s, Man’s World
by William Deresiewicz
You’d be forgiven for thinking of Cormac McCarthy’s slim, disillusioned new novel, with its suggestively self-referential title, as the 72-year-old writer’s farewell to fiction. You’d also be forgiven for hoping it was. It’s not that No Country for Old Men–taut, savage, headlong–isn’t first-rate by ordinary standards, but by the standards of McCarthy’s previous work, which has established him as one of America’s greatest living writers, it is superficial and perfunctory. The moral intensity remains; the imaginative complexity is gone. No Country for Old Men, whose streamlined, cinematic plot is compressed into some 300 short pages, is McCarthy’s first novel in the seven years since he closed the Border Trilogy with Cities of the Plain. Though he is said to have three or four other works in various states of composition, he seems to have run out of patience with the majestic, processional prose and slow sifting of existential questions that gave his earlier work its weight. McCarthy has long attracted comparison with Faulkner, Hemingway and Melville, but in the shape his career has assumed of late he reminds me most of Evelyn Waugh, another unrelenting Catholic moralist who, as he aged, declined first into sentimentality, then into certainty…
As the novel nears its end, however, Bell’s very doubts about the value of his life’s work become the excuse for an affirmation of timeworn verities: the endurance of truth, the existence of God, the nihilism of unbelief, the goodness of the old ways. The sheriff is clearly McCarthy’s mouthpiece here, and so we find the erstwhile apostle of ignorance giving us chapter and verse about what to believe and how. Waugh finally came to this kind of tub-thumping certainty, too. And the trilogy’s historical problem also resurfaces. What Bell is confronting, we’re told again and again, is a new kind of evil. Apparently the Old West, like the rest of human history, was just one big family. Like Waugh, again, McCarthy has forgotten that his critique of modernity is only a subset of his critique of humanity. And the problem with the present, apparently, isn’t just drugs, it’s also abortion, kids with green hair and the loss of good manners. McCarthy the conservative has conscripted McCarthy the artist for service in the culture wars, and the result turns out about as happily as such arrangements usually do.
Indeed, in ways that aren’t true of his previous works, no matter how bloody, No Country for Old Men seems designed as a calculated assault on the reader. In the two interviews McCarthy has given, he has defended the violence of his works by speaking of death as the ultimate reality, the avoidance of death as a failing in both people and novels. But in his previous works, death is only part of the point, an aspect of the violent worlds he portrays. Here, it often seems the only point, the story a single-minded effort to pile up the body count. It is Chigurh’s practice, before he kills someone, to force them to look him, to look death, in the face, and that’s just what McCarthy does to us, rubbing our tender little modern liberal noses in death’s horror by making us watch it in slow motion: “Chigurh shot him in the face. Everything that Wells had ever known or thought or loved drained slowly down the wall behind him.” But this, and passages like it, are a sign of weakness, not strength: McCarthy needs to be this explicit and this manipulative because he has failed to make us care about his characters. There’s also something sophomoric and ultimately sad in the morbid fascination he displays at moments like this. Given his age, maybe he isn’t rubbing our noses in death so much as ramming his own head against it. Fiction may or may not be any country for old men, but the present never is.
Full review at: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20050912/deresiewicz
Shouts & Murmurs
No, But We Saw the Movie
by Nora Ephron November 26, 2007
When they got home that night, she went to get the book. She’d ordered it earlier in the week and meant to read it before they went to the movie, but it was a hard week and things got away from her. This was happening more and more.
Maybe if we look in the book we’ll be able to figure it out, she said.
Maybe we’ll find out what happened at the motel, he said. Why did it skip forward like that?
He said it’s the same in the book.
I told you who. The guy I was standing with while I was waiting for you to come out of the men’s room. He read the book and he said it’s the same deal exactly. The sheriff pulls up and everybody’s dead. You never see the scene where they all get shot. Maybe it’s because Javier didnt kill them.
Javier Bardem. The serial killer.
I thought it was Benicio Del Toro.
Well it wasnt. The guy outside the men’s room said there’s a scene in the book that’s not in the movie. He said Javier goes to see a total stranger in some office, who’s never been mentioned earlier. He gives him the satchel of money and he says, Here’s your money back, now maybe you’ll hire me to do things like this in the future.
Why did they leave that out?
How do I know? Write a letter to the Coen brothers.
She opened the book and started reading from the end.
He does this weird thing with contractions, she said. He uses apostrophes for words like that’s and it’s but he doesnt use them for dont and wasnt and wont. He doesnt use quotation marks, either.
Mr. Cranky’s rating:
Critics can wax poetic about the maturity of the Coen brothers and the brilliance of their cinematographer Roger Deakins and the wonderful prose of novelist Cormac McCarthy, but I find it highly ironic that with all that genius brought together, I still didn’t get what the hell happened at the end of this film and I don’t think anyone else will either.
It’s one of those films that ends with a speech and I was only half paying attention because, quite frankly, when an actor starts blabbering on in that obvious metaphorical or symbolic tone, my eyes just glaze over and my auditory system kind of shuts down. After all, film is a visual medium. I’m waiting to see something. Two hours have gone by and some dipshit Sheriff with an accent I can barely understand starts going on and on, it’s not like I’m going to be locked in. It’s so hard to take people from Texas seriously in the first place. Then, all of a sudden, the screen goes black, I don’t remember what was being said, and I’m like “what the fuck?”
That was my exact reaction at the end of this film: “what the fuck?” The speech is given by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) and it has something to do with a couple of dreams he had, one having to do with his father, I think. So, if you’re still awake toward the end of the film and the Sheriff starts jabbering about his dreams, you might want to pay attention. Basically, unless you catch what’s being said here and understand it, you’ve just wasted a couple of hours.
I suppose telling you the Sheriff is talking at the end gives away the fact that he’s still alive as the film is about a drug deal gone wrong, the average joe who finds the money, and the killer hired to track him down. Until the end, I kind of thought the Sheriff was just a tangential character. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) seemed like the protagonist. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the stone-cold killer, is the antagonist. Actually, the Sheriff is probably a tangential character. In a way, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who has a direct role in the story, is more of an outside observer. He’s the narrator of the story.
If I figured anything out about the movie at all, it’s that it’s about the difference between the capabilities of pure evil and the capabilities of men who aren’t pure evil but who think of themselves as tough and capable. So, you have this guy, Llewelyn Moss, who thinks he can handle himself, but really, he has no idea what evil truly exists in the world and what lengths it will go to. You know how in most movies a hero will muster up some amount of courage and deal with an evil character? That doesn’t happen in this film. As far as the Coens are concerned, there are a certain number of levels of human deviousness that rank something like: capable, determined, under-handed, dirty rat, white-collar evil genius, blue-collar evil genius, and pure evil. Even a blue-collar evil genius cannot contend with pure evil. Anton Chigurh is pure evil. Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) is a blue-collar evil genius. A blue-collar evil genius is somebody who pretends to be evil and is considered evil by most other people for that reason alone, but he still probably has a family and a mother that he loves. When push comes to shove, pure evil kicks his ass every time.
Thus, this movie is nothing more than what happens when a guy gets in over his head. And if you ask me, Llewlyn Moss was hardly the only one in over his head.
From Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review in the Chicago Reader:
But just because the Coens are hip enough to know the contemporary audience they’re addressing doesn’t mean they have anything to say we don’t already know, about Abu Ghraib or anything else. What I suspect they’re really offering us is a convenient cop-out: we can allow dog collars to be used even while we hypocritically shake our heads at the sadness of it all.