[Guest Blogger Tim Callahan gives us another movie review. I have not been to the movies in a while but I have a plan to go see a ton of stuff over Winter break: Southland Tales, No Country for Old Men, Charlie Wilson's War, Alien v Predator, Enchanted, Michael Clayton, I am Legend. You may get a slew of movie review responses from me soon. Thanks especially to Tim for helping out in this busy week for me, in which I have grades due.]
For me, No Country for Old Men cannot be discussed out of context. I can’t see it as just a movie, and respond accordingly. No, the act of seeing No Country for Old Men is a convergence of concepts, predispositions, and prejudices. Watching it is a way to answer questions about Joel and Ethan Coen’s ability to bounce back from a mid-career slump, about their interpretation of a great novel by one of America’s greatest living novelists, about Josh Brolin’s emergence as a powerful actor in 2007, about what it takes to make a “western” in the 21st century.
Then again, I always watch movies in this mode: as a series of questions which the filmmakers will answer. Sometimes I think I know the questions going in, as with this film, while other times (usually in the case of foreign films involving cultures I know little about, like City of God or Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) the questions emerge as the story unfolds. In the case of No Country for Old Men, I knew the questions before the film began to roll, and I wasn’t surprised by any of the answers. That isn’t to say that the movie was formulaic or dull. It wasn’t. It was excellent, actually—thrilling where it needed to be thrilling, still when it needed to be still, suspenseful where in needed to be suspenseful, etc., etc. It may be the best movie of the year, and I say that because it answered my questions completely.
But if you go in with a different set of questions, or if you think it’s a different type of movie than it really is, you will probably be as disappointed as the audience I saw walking out of the Triplex Theater a few weeks ago. I won’t say they had the wrong set of questions in mind, but clearly they expected something other than the Coen brothers provided, and that didn’t work for the audience.
As I said, No Country for Old Men did answer my questions, primarily the one about whether or not the Coen brothers would make another great movie. Everyone who loves film seems to have a different opinion on which Coen films are the best, and perhaps Blood Simple fans would appreciate this movie more than Raising Arizona fans, but certainly No Country for Old Men is in the top tier of Coen films. It’s superior to than anything they’ve done so far this decade, and I would rank it in the Top Five Coen Brothers Films of All Time List. It’s up there with The Big Lebowski, and Fargo, and Miller’s Crossing, and Barton Fink. (I’m sure your list differs, but we can all agree that The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty are near the bottom, right?)
[EDITOR"S NOTE: WHAT SANE PERSON WOULD DISAGREE WITH TIM HERE?]
What, exactly, makes this movie so great? The bleakness. The image of Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh pacing toward the camera while the tank of compressed air clanks against the floorboards. The moment Tommy Lee Jones’s Sherriff Bell nearly puts the metaphorical pieces of the puzzle together, but trails away with the line, “the mind wanders.” The death-defying, ridiculous, savage chase between dog and man. The false sense of hope. The charm of Woody Harrelson’s Carson Wells, a man with the swagger of someone who knows the deal—but soon finds out that he understands nothing. Josh Brolin’s quiet performance (neither of the leads has much to say, or much use for words—quite a contrast from the Coen brothers usual zest for verbal wit) centers the film, and although the plot might seem to be about his character, it’s not; it’s about the setting, and his Llewelyn Moss embodies a certain time and a certain place with perfection.
As an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, it’s nearly spot-on. It’s probably the most faithful literary adaptation I have seen, with one of the only missteps coming in the form of Beth Grant’s Agnes, mother-in-law of Llewelyn Moss. The Coens add a scene (at least is feels tacked-on, and I don’t recall reading the scene in the book) in which Grant (whom you may remember as the fascist Sparkle Motion mother from Donnie Darko) hams it up and talks about “the cancer” with a performance that’s 10% Coen brothers and 90% Hee Haw. Her performance might actually kind of fit in something mannered like Raising Arizona or The Hudsucker Proxy, but it’s completely, jarringly out of place in the stillness and inevitability of No Country for Old Men. The rest of the movie captures McCarthy’s tone, and the essence of his characters, with great accuracy. But that Beth Grant scene really doesn’t belong.
No Country for Old Men is, ultimately, the perfect western for this new century. It subverts clichés of the genre (the sheriff is no hero, there is no showdown, justice will not necessarily be served) while treating the characters with dignity. It doesn’t mock the conventions of the western, but, rather, it shows that our romanticism has always been flawed—Entropy is the only constant.
The film is thematically bleak, but, as in classical tragedies like Oedipus Rex, catharsis comes from the perfection of the dramatic form. No Country for Old Men is a great movie because it knows how to be a great movie—its artistry is vividly alive and engaging, even when its characters are doomed.