By Jason A. Hill & Ezra Stead
No Country for Old Men, USA, 2007
Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Based on the Novel No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
[Note: “An Argument” is a new feature on Movies I Didn’t Get, in which the site’s founder and owner, Jason A. Hill, and head editor, Ezra Stead, debate the relative merits (or lack thereof) of various beloved movies on which they disagree. Please feel free to get in on the argument in the comments section below.]
JASON’S ORIGINAL REVIEW: I didn’t get this movie. I wanted to, and I was fully engaged as I watched the film. However, by the “end” of this film, the only way I knew it was over was by lights in the cinema coming up, and for a film that wins Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor, I really expected a lot more. Of course, I saw the movie before all of that.
No Country for Old Men is full of excitement, suspense, and action, but I got the feeling that there was something deeper going on under the surface and I was expecting some revelation at the end. What I got instead was that feeling you get when you’re at a big concert and the headlining band comes out on stage two hours late then leaves the stage after one song as the lead singer throws the mic down and flips off the crowd. At first, everyone thinks it’s a great gesture, but after a while they start to feel conned.
And what’s with that Anton Chigurh? I mean, scary? Sure, but he was scary more in the Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers kind of way. Some sort of super-villain, run amok in Simpleville. I wasn’t buying it. All the bloody theatrics seemed hardly necessary or practical. Now, I know human beings can be irrational and do some evil things, but this guy was just over the top, killing everyone in his path, randomly – and at times against his own best interests – except for a couple of kids at the end, but I’ll get to that.
I’m not one to argue against pushing the boundaries for art, but I don’t think this film really stands up as a great example because most of what people say they like about this film comes as a comparison to films with more conventional structures. This means that this film can’t stand on its own. It’s like looking at a framed blank canvas and giving credit to the artist for being so bold as to not have done what everyone else was doing by actually painting something.
The story is structured around three (or four, if you include Woody Harrelson’s 15 minutes) equally confusing and irresolute characters. None of them seems to make a profound point rather than to point out the pointlessness of trying. The women in this film are played pretty well within their characters’ limits by Kelly Macdonald, Beth Grant, and Tess Harper. But in the end all these characters amount to are helpless bystanders who become victims of their failure to understand what’s happening around them.
Tommy Lee Jones plays Ed Tom Bell, a character you’ve seen before in other movies and one Jones plays well, but he’s essentially the fool of this story, hence the title. Josh Brolin plays Llewelyn Moss, who one would assume is the main character but a lot of his screen time and substance is split with Ed Tom Bell and Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem. Besides all these characters having first names, you’re never sure from what point-of-view you are seeing this story.
The ultimate travesty of this film comes at the end, an ending that reminds me so much of Se7en, where the evil of the antagonist prevails and the protagonist discovers only a convoluted conclusion in epilogue. Ed tells his wife about a dream he has involving his father that sounds like the horrible side effect of an expired medication, or maybe Ed is trying to tell his wife about his peyote habit. And dare I say it, then it really gets bizarre. As Anton drives away from his latest senseless murder victim, he gets in a random car accident. As he gets out of his wrecked car, he encounters two kids who he spares and even rewards for their help, then staggers off into the sunset. Huh?
I’ve never read the book by Cormac McCarthy, but I feel like if indeed he felt that this is no country for old men, maybe he never set foot inside a multi-billion-dollar boardroom, where I assure you there will be nothing but old men. As a matter of fact, with the exception of this past election, you could say that this country has been pretty much run by old men. So I guess from the start I really don’t understand what they are getting at.
I mean, I understand that people get too old to perform a job, especially one as difficult as law enforcement, but I happen to have a lot of respect for my elders and the knowledge they pass on. It just seems a strange, depressing, and cynical view that all this story would amount to is getting old and losing touch, if that is all he and the Coens were going for. When I talk to most of my friends about this movie, I get a sense that they appreciate the film for more of what it wasn’t than what it was, a film that breaks all the traditional structures of films they had seen in the past and completes its own cerebral conclusion: “Shit Happens.”
EZRA WEIGHS IN: So this is the one that started it all – this site, the arguments, everything that makes Movies I Didn’t Get what it is. It makes sense, really, as this is a film that was bound to divide audiences. It is clearly a work of meticulous craft and objective quality, yet it is also so unconventional in the way it tells its story that many viewers are sure to find it confounding. I’ve heard it said that No Country only won Best Picture honors because Academy voters were afraid to admit they didn’t get it, and there may be some truth to that. I won’t pretend that I myself entirely understand everything about it, but, as will become apparent throughout these arguments, I strongly feel that full comprehension of what a film “means” is not required for enjoyment of that film.
A good example is David Lynch’s Lost Highway, which I actively disliked the first time I saw it, mainly because it left me with the question, “What the hell was going on in that movie?” However, it was that very question that intrigued me enough to see it again … and again … and again … and so on. Now it is one of my very favorite films.
I say that to say this: No Country for Old Men is another one of those films that might be somewhat unsatisfying on the first viewing but becomes more and more rewarding with each subsequent visit. Having only seen it twice now, and not having read McCarthy’s novel, either, I can’t begin to minutely analyze it the way I can Lost Highway. However, as I said before, complete understanding of this film is far from necessary for my enjoyment of it. I require no deeper meaning in order to love, for example, the scene in which Anton Chigurh casually blows up a parked car to provide a distraction while he raids a pharmacy for pain medication, or the (possibly unconscious) Terminator homage that follows when he treats his own wounds in a motel room.
Though there is a solid handful of films from 2007 that I liked better than No Country – including The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, There Will Be Blood, Grindhouse, and Zodiac – the Coen Brothers’ film is nonetheless one of the best of that year, or indeed that decade, and one to which I will undoubtedly return again and again over the years. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why it resonates so much, but I think a large part of it is atmosphere. There is such a pervading sense of doom throughout the entire film, and if Chigurh represents anything beyond himself, it is certainly that. He is death personified, and he is terrifying.
I strongly disagree that Chigurh ever kills anyone “against his own best interests.” Chigurh seems to have no interest but killing, and those he kills or spares are all symptomatic of his utter disinterest in and disregard for human life. The film as a whole shares this extremely pessimistic worldview, and I can understand why some viewers find this so off-putting. It is the same reason many people dislike Se7en, which, more than any other film mentioned thus far, is absolutely one of my favorites. It’s not that my own worldview is so pessimistic that I enjoy seeing it reinforced; I just appreciate the audacity of filmmakers who dare to push to that extreme, in the same way I appreciate a film like, for example, Shall We Dance? for having a worldview far more optimistic than my own.
No Country for Old Men’s pessimism becomes obvious very early on, when Llewelyn Moss’s conscience forces him to return to the murder scene from whence he retrieved the bag of money in order to give some water to a dying man he saw there. The man is, of course, dead by this point, so his gesture is meaningless, but it is this act of humanity that leads to Moss’s identity being discovered and sets Chigurh on his trail. Like Tony Montana’s decision in Scarface to spare the young girl from being bombed along with the assassination target who is her father, it is Moss’s conscience that leads to his ultimate downfall.
This is not to say that Chigurh himself believes in such cause and effect relationships in the universe. Instead, his decisions to kill or not are often completely random, to the point of actually being determined by a coin toss. However, he is also a hired assassin, despite seeming to have no real interest in or necessity for money. In this way, he is truly a force of nature, dispatching not only those for whom there is some reason to kill, but also arbitrarily selecting others for death along the way.
JASON’S RETORT: So, I finally read No Country For Old Men, the book, and I will agree that the film is very faithful to the author’s ethos. It’s probably unfair to compare the experience of reading the book with the film but the book experience is quite different. You spend a lot more time in character development in the book and inside each character’s head, so their actions have more continuity and meaning. However, I think that film, being such a powerful medium of sight and sound, can convey these things if the right effort is attended. This story is primarily a character study. There’s an opportunist who gets in over his head, a policeman trying to reconcile with his past, and a sociopath on a warpath. It makes for great drama, but the film for me comes off as a violent action film’s wolf to its veiled in art film sheep’s clothing. The violence can be seen as a character too, just like in the book, but I feel it’s used at cranked up intervals that leave reality far behind. It’s a kind of way for art film fans to enjoy the cheap thrills of meaningless explosions and high octane gunplay without admitting that’s what they enjoyed about it. The same thing can be said for the lesbian sex in Black Swan. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy esoteric journeys in cinema as much as I do action films but let’s not pretend one is the other.
Philosophically, the statement this film is making is deep into nihilism. That’s no secret since it’s even implied in the title. I’m not against this either, but it’s a kind of picked though version that places Anton Chigurh at the moral center. It’s a nihilist’s dream world and Chigurh’s shotgun poetry tells us that there is no meaning in the world, only wolves and sheep. The setting of the film ends up being totally irrelevant because the actions and results of Chigurh’s wrath leave reality in the dust. Personally, I don’t remember the ’80s being that bad, aside from some bad fashion choices (Anton’s haircut included). Once you understand that this film is making a statement about meaninglessness, I wondered why it was being delivered in Jason Bourne-style violence. Nihilism always seems more subtle to me in real life. The message is pretty simple and there isn’t enough story here to “understand” beyond its prose. I wouldn’t go as far to call it “anti-plot,” but it feels incomplete to me, like a dark antidote.
I would agree with Ezra’s statement that it’s not necessary for a film to support your own worldview to enjoy it, but I can’t tolerate a lack of story just to present as simple an idea as “life’s a bitch, then you die,” nor do I support claiming it’s genius to do so, as did many critics. It’s no secret that I value the creative limitations of a story arc to tell stories. Twists on this method can be done without attacking the idea of a “beginning, middle, end” idea with a main character if its statement or meaning says something profound about the human condition. I suppose my own worldview does influence my opinion, just like everybody else. I loved Lost Highway, but there, its story world allows the rules to be bent and broken and the characters achieve a kind of resolve, meaning that there is something different about them at the end than at the beginning. It only needed to make sense in the terms of its own world. No Country established that this was a 1980s version of a world we know, then filled it with characters that do not and would not exist there. I also feel like the critics are trying to tell me that this kind of film is superior because of its lack of justice and moral resolve. With a statement that cynical, it’s hard for me to take the film seriously. It’s akin to more of a slasher film where the “good” characters’ only goal is to survive. I have to believe that what’s going on onscreen could possibly happen. It would make more sense to me if written by Dylan Klebold and directed by Gus Van Sant than a mature writer like McCarthy and filmed by the Coens.
My final complaint with the movie has less to do with the movie itself but the response of critics and the academy. Despite the politics, I’d say they usually get it right (maybe 70% of the time). It’s possible the Academy voted this film Best Pic, etc, etc, because they were afraid to admit they didn’t get it. However, I believe they did it as a makeup Oscar to the Coens for the hindsight of films they got wrong in the past, something they’ve clearly done before.
I was also put off by the Coens’ acceptance speech for Best Director at the Oscars. It was the most ego-ridden, self-aggrandizing, public cinema circle jerk in history. The speech oddly reminds me of the feeling I had when I finished No Country. Here it is again if you forgot. “Too many people to thank.” Hmm, so let’s just thank ourselves. No Country finally delivered them the most coveted prize in cinema craft, but was this film that deserving? Will people still want to watch this film years later? Was this film really better than The Assassination of Jesse James or There Will Be Blood? Many consider No Country a western. One way to really understand where I think No Country got it wrong is to compare it to two other films, in the same genre, and competing in the same year for the same awards. Jesse James and Blood were both westerns, both nihilistic statements, and both far better than No Country, in my opinion.
EZRA AGAIN: I don’t disagree that The Assassination of Jesse James and There Will Be Blood are both better films than No Country, but there are a few things above with which I do disagree. First and foremost, though I agree that some of the titillating trappings of the more lowbrow genre film are present in No Country, it’s not so simple as just cloaking these elements in the spare style of the art-house. What the Coen brothers did in this film that had many critics proclaiming it genius was to embrace genre filmmaking while at the same time turning it on its head and subverting audience expectations. There are no meaningless explosions in No Country; when Chigurh blows up a parked car outside a pharmacy, it is for a specific purpose. The fact that this specific purpose is to distract the pharmacist while he, Chigurh, steals painkillers is interesting, too, in that it mirrors the average action movie’s tendency to distract the audience with explosions rather than creating a compelling story. However, No Country is far from an action movie by any definition. It falls much more into the suspense genre, and at every turn avoids action movie cliches. When an explosion does occur, it is basically in the background of the real action of Chigurh’s pharmaceutical theft. Likewise, when Llewelyn Moss is ultimately killed, the audience doesn’t see it happen. Instead of a bloody gunfight, we are shown only the aftermath, subverting audience expectations once again.
Finally, I have to admit that the fact of this film taking place in the 1980s never quite registered with me. Despite having a clearly delineated time and place in which it is set, the film has a timeless quality to me. While its tone can never be divorced from its West Texas setting, in my view at least, the time period in which it takes place doesn’t really matter at all. It’s a minor point, but I think this timeless quality is intentional and speaks volumes about the resonance of the film, and I also strongly disagree with the suggestion that No Country is a film that won’t be re-watched and talked about many years from now. I don’t think it will necessarily be more revered or studied than either of the other two previously mentioned Western masterpieces of the same year, but I do think it will stand the test of time very well.
Jason A. Hill is the Founder, Owner of Movies I Didn’t Get.com. He is a film critic and writer of articles and film reviews covering a variety of genres and film news that have been syndicated to many sites in the film blogosphere. He specializes in independent film in the US and Asia.
For more information please contact Jason at JasonAHill@MoviesIDidn’tGet.com.
Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper, and aspiring stand-up comic who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in New York City.
For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com.