18 November 2007

No Country for Old Men

(Some preliminaries. First, I should note that to say anything about my reaction to this movie, I have to discuss the last third in some detail. If you're the type of person who doesn't like to know anything about the last third of movies, don't read on. I don't think knowing such details would harm the experience of first seeing this movie, but that's just me.

Second, I should say that I did not read Cormac McCarthy's novel, from which the Coen brothers have wrought this film, though a friend who attended with us had read it, and said he thought the movie was quite faithful, or at least as faithful as is possible, given the differences in media.

Finally, I should mention that Richard Larson attended with us, so keep an eye on his blog in case he writes up his response, too.)

No Country for Old Men is as clear an example of subverted genre expectations as any movie I can think of. It gains power from the iconography of certain types of westerns and noir thrillers, and for at least the first hour, the pleasure of the movie is the pleasure of a cat-and-mouse story: a man stumbles upon millions of dollars of drug money, and other men chase him. One of those men is a lone killing machine, a force of destructive nature. Our hero escapes close calls, has some good luck, shows real cleverness, gets battered enough for us to feel his pain.

And then everything starts to get weird.

By this point in the movie, we're settling in to the comfort of familiar patterns played out in expert ways: the pacing is suspenseful, the characters idiosyncratic enough to hold our interest, the mayhem vivid, the stakes high.

But there are rifts in the patterns. Characters who seem to have been introduced into the story for important reasons don't end up being important at all, except as corpses The mayhem continues, but is represented differently, kept off camera -- in terms of violence, a Jacobean revenge tragedy becomes a Greek tragedy, except the violence here offers no catharsis, only carnage. The one stable element is chance. Again and again, till it becomes so obvious as to be annoying, we are told that you never know what's going to happen. It's as if the characters themselves are coming to grips with the failure of their genre expectations.

In some ways, this is a movie about men and the failure of machismo. Every tough guy who says he'll slay the dragon and save the damsel ends up in failure. For all their talk of chance, it's just a mask, an excuse. Chance only rarely comes into play, and how many lives does it save? (Maybe one: the man at the gas station.) Determined evil wins all games of chance.

Or maybe chance is a red herring in the dried-up lakebed of this film. The best review I've read is by Matt Zoller Seitz, and he makes an interesting point about the Coens and morality: that in their movies decency matters most, and destruction falls most fully on those who become corrupt, those who drift away from community and love. Llewellyn Moss, who takes the money and runs, seals his fate when he becomes more cat than mouse. Chigurh, the hunter, succeeds because he is most alone and least devoted to the rites and expectations of the human world. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who never forgets the people around him, doesn't get much of what he wants, and ends up dreaming of his father and distant fire, but he does not, like so many other characters, suffer an apocalypse. He yearns for a lost time when things were easier and evil less empowered, but we've no way to know if such a time ever existed, or if his father, too, dreamed of a bit of light on a far horizon.

Is it satisfying? Not entirely, no, but then neither are movies that connect all the dots of genre patterns, the predictable fare we get most of the time. Even when achieved with great craftsmanship, met expectations are still just met expectations, and we might as well have stayed home and imagined it all in our mind. As with one of my favorite movies of the last few years, Memories of Murder, if No Country for Old Men were more satisfying in its conclusion, it would be a lesser film. It's still trapped by genre expectations, but at least it works against them, pressing up to the bars to say: You are conditioned by patterns that inhibit you. Recognize the patterns and see what it feels like to have them distorted. Then there might be hope for original thought and original art. To step beyond genre is to become sui generis, but there's no shame in taking one step at a time.

8 comments:

  1. This review makes me want to see the movie, even if it isn't a *glowing* review.

    I wonder what your take on SOUTHLAND TALES would be....

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  2. I'm curious about Southland Tales, though a bit wary, too -- I thought Donnie Darko was amusing enough, but somehow thin and not very memorable. I thought Lucius Shepard review of Southland Tales was interesting.

    No Country for Old Men is very much worth seeing -- I might have gotten too concerned with other things in the review to make that clear. (Matt Zoller Seitz's take on it is really the one to read.)

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  3. The thing about the work of Coen Brothers (my wife is a great fan) and the same can be said for Woody Allen's oeuvre (I would be the fan there) is that even their bad films are still watchable, good by anyone else's standards. I expect I'll be buying my wife the DVD for her birthday so I'll get to make up my own mind then but it sounds interesting.

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  4. I have to see this movie.

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  5. Memories of Murder is one of my favorite movies too. Just incredible.

    Kristin and I saw No Country; I think it's the best film of theirs that I've seen. In regards to machismo, the sheriff entering the closed-off crime scene was such a vulnerable portrait, and how courage isn't the absence of fear. Although I had a little bit of trouble with the scene setting in what seemed to be the most ambiguous part of the movie--was Anton in the adjoining room? Did the sheriff choose to confront Anton or did he know that that room would be empty? (I think it's the former on that last point, but I can't be sure).

    Kudos to Kelly McDonald too. Wow.

    P.S. Have you ever seen Save the Green Planet! ?

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  6. No, I don't even know what Save the Green Planet! is, so I will have go out and find it...

    And I'm with you on being perplexed by that scene in the motel after it's closed as a crime scene. I was lost there, and figured I'd let that particular mystery wait until I saw the film again.

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  7. Nice writeup, I also thought this was a very interesting film, especially so in relation to McCarthy's novel, because it's a more or less faithful adaptation that nevertheless tweaks the original novel in some interesting ways. I wrote my own review too, to add to the reams of commentary that have surrounded this film already.

    For that matter, I thought the much-maligned Southland Tales was probably even better. It's not as neat or "finished" as the Coens' film, but in its messy lunacy and barrage of ideas it wound up being much more fun, entertaining, and thought-provoking. I also did a review of that one, structured as a series of random impressions because it's probably the best way of dealing with Kelly's sprawling mass of a film.

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  8. The title of my comment is No Movie for Old Men:

    I'm only 36 but I did go to art school and study film.

    Call me obtuse/uncultured but a pattern was set up in this movie of an unrelenting killer and an uncannily (sp) determined/lucky protagonist.

    -then all of a sudden the protag is dead, the antag gets hit by a car and TL Jones is rambling on about some bull$h!+...

    The one thing that I did glean was the old guy telling TL Jones about the murder in 1908 and to not think that everything was better in the good old days.

    But other than that this movie starts off on a great path and then jumpcuts into a bunch of random loose ends.

    Having said that, I think the emporer is not wearing any clothes. The 3rd half of this movie made it horrible.

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