Monday, September 22, 2008

No Country For Old Men

I watched No Country For Old Men when I got back from my country weekend yesterday evening, being too exhausted to consider going out and doing anything else, particularly in the middle of a torrential rainstorm that was making it next-to-impossible to get cabs (and also, perhaps, because the title seemed to be another pointedly appropriate reminder to self: maybe it's time to get out of China?). I am afraid I now rank amongst the sceptics about this film (the IMDB reviewers do seem to be particularly sharply divided on it!).

I was probably predisposed towards scepticism even before I saw it. There had been too much hype. Everybody had been telling me how good it was. A couple of people had even told me that it was an improvement on Cormac McCarthy's source novel (I haven't read it, but am curious enough to seek it out now; I think he's a very fine writer) - something I was particularly suspicious of, since few films, even extremely good ones, come anywhere near to improving on their sources. I don't feel that the Coens are at their best with adapted material; they excel in creating completely original stories, particularly in blackly comic modes (I am less a fan of their pure comedies like Raising Arizona or The Hudsucker Proxy or The Big Lebowski, and prefer their darker, semi-serious works like The Man Who Wasn't There and Miller's Crossing). And, of course, 9 times out of 10, the Oscar winners are ridiculously overrated (one of my earliest film review posts last year was devoted to slagging off The Departed, which I found to be a very pedestrian - and wildly implausible! - retread of a much more entertaining Hong Kong original). So, I was sitting down to watch with some trepidation, a suspicion of likely disappointment.

It's going to be difficult to explain what I don't like about this film without throwing in a few SPOILERS, so be warned.

Although there are a few shafts of humour in the dialogue, this film is essentially a straight thriller - lacking the quirky black comedy of Fargo or The Man Who Wasn't There, or even of the Coens' brilliant debut Blood Simple (probably the most completely 'serious' of their previous films). It's the tale of a poor Texan trailer park dweller, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who, while out hunting in the West Texas desert near the Mexican border one day, stumbles upon a crime scene - a drug deal gone wrong: two rival gangs of Mexicans have annihilated each other in a shootout, leaving behind a huge stash of drugs and a briefcase full of money. Not unnaturally, Moss takes the money, some $2 million, home with him. However, he later unwisely returns to the scene, when the leaders of one of the gangs have also shown up to check out the situation: he only narrowly escapes with his life, and the criminals now have a lead on who he is. They dispatch the mysterious hitman, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), to track him down and recover the money. Later - perhaps becoming uncomfortable with Chigurh's methods or his loyalty; it's not clearly explained - they dispatch another bounty hunter, a Colonel Wells (Woody Harrelson), to find and eliminate Chigurh. Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a shrewd third-generation West Texas lawman, finds himself investigating a succession of crimes which puts him on the trail of all three of them.

It's all very well done: beautifully photographed and edited, and superbly acted all round. There are a number of genuinely tense scenes, and some great dialogue. But there are also a number of troubling implausibilities and lacunae in the plotting. Professional criminals just wouldn't ever hire such a loose cannon as Chigurh - who is a psychopathic serial killer, and thus attracts far too much attention to himself - no matter how formidable his resourcefulness and implacability are. Sheriff Bell gives the impression of being an extremely astute lawman, and yet he fails to come close to locating any of the people he's hunting; he does meet with Moss's wife (the Scottish actress Kelly MacDonald, best known from Trainspotting, doing an amazingly convincing Texas accent), but inexplicably fails to offer her protection. Wells the bounty hunter appears to be confident that he can outsmart Chigurh, but is in fact easily ambushed and eliminated by him almost immediately (rendering his inclusion in the story in the first place fairly pointless). Chigurh, on the other hand, although he seems to be a very savvy manhunter, has apparently failed to find Moss on the run in Mexico, although it had taken Wells only "about three hours" to do so (presumably by ringing around the hospitals and asking about an American who'd been admitted with gunshot wounds). Chigurh also chooses to kill Wells, although he is perhaps now the only person who can lead him to the money. None of this makes any sense.

More disappointing than these unlikelihoods in the plot, though, is the eccentric narrative structure: the story is told in three almost entirely separate strands. Although the character of Wells is quickly rendered irrelevant, his confrontation with Chigurh is actually one of the most interesting scenes in the film, because it is the only time when two of the main characters meet. Chigurh and Moss have a shootout, and later speak briefly on the phone; but the Chigurh/Wells scene is the only occasion when two of the principals speak face to face. It is bizarre. And very unsatisfying.

Furthermore, the story isn't really told at all: significant chunks of back-story are omitted, and all sorts of loose ends are left hanging. Chigurh tracks down Moss's wife, but we're not shown if he kills her or not. We don't know if he's already killed Moss in Mexico. We don't know why, if Moss is still alive, he didn't do anything to protect his wife. We don't know if he may yet make good on his threat to track down and kill Chigurh for threatening his wife. We don't know if he, or anyone, has recovered the money. We don't know if Chigurh is going to survive the injuries he receives in a random car accident near the end of the film. The final scene shows Bell now settling into retirement: he reflects on his career in law enforcement, but never mentions the outcome of the events we've been watching.

Yes, I know, real life isn't like the movies: stories are messier, often incomplete; crimes often go unsolved, unpunished; sometimes the bad guys win; sometimes the final outcome remains forever unknown. Pretentious Coen brothers fans will try to praise this fragmentary, incomplete narrative as a bold and brilliant experiment, a thought-provoking challenge to conventional expectations. It isn't. It's just an irritating mess.

I suspect that McCarthy's original preoccupations have been unbalanced, or completely lost, in this cinematic representation. The disillusionment of the aging lawman, Bell, with a rising tide of brutal and often random violence in modern society, and his vague meditations on what may have changed since "the old days", seems likely to have been the main focus of the book; but in the cinema, it becomes bafflingly irrelevant, since Bell never meets any of the other characters, and never actually does anything about the unfolding events. In this film, the demonic killer, Chigurh, becomes the centre of the story - playing to our prurient fascination with extreme violence. In his superhuman resilience and his enigmatic lack of character or motivation he is reminiscent of that other great screen monster, Hannibal Lecter in The Silence Of The Lambs. (An aside: Anthony Hopkins was nominated for Best Actor in that film, despite it being a fairly tiny role with only, what, 10 minutes of screen time. Here, Javier Bardem was repeatedly nominated for Best Supporting Actor awards, although he is quite clearly the most important of the three leads. Oh, the strange politics of the awards circus! I admit, though, that Bardem is very, very good, utterly chilling in the role.)

It is a diverting enough little thriller, raised above the average by some superb performances - but fatally let down by its lack of an ending.

I suppose this would be a good time to remind people of my long-running Which is your favourite Coen brothers film? thread. Would anyone nominate No Country For Old Men for this accolade??


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I liked No Country quite a bit but that response was really without thought (and based more or less on the strength of Bardem's role and performance, which I couldn't help laughing about because it's so operatically nuts). Here you've provided the intellectual counterweight that says to the amygdala, "No, wait just a minute, dammit, don't go off half-cocked...!"

I'm not looking forward to seeing what Hollywood does with The Road but am always ready to be pleasantly surprised.

Anonymous said...

That wasn't "a few spoilers" that was nearly the entire story!

As to the "no ending", the point of a good thriller is to haunt you. By simply stopping, it reinforces the "he's still out there ..." message and encourages you/me (the Auteur) to imagine "what next?". The Brothers are also sufficiently savvy to realise that the final act will also be played-out in a million blogs. I guess that's the point.

I agree with your lack-of-realism comments but no-one believes that Bambi is true, either (and it it were made more realistic, it'd be narrrated by Delia and inform you how to roast Thumper).

Froog said...

It's one thing to have an abrupt or enigmatic ending, quite another to have no ending at all. And this film doesn't just not have an ending; it basically doesn't have the second half of the story!

I suppose the Coens, or their apologists, may say that it's a Schrodinger's Cat kind of scenario: Llewellyn and Carla Jean are both dead and not-dead; it's entirely up to the viewer to invent their own endings; you can flip a coin.

But that's just pretentious horseshit. This is a well-made film with a VERY unsatisfying narrative. Its success is almost entirely down to the public's weakness for crazy - invincible, unknowable - killers.

I rather think there was probably a lot more to McCarthy's book than "hey, this psycho dude is so crazy, and he's got his own bolt-gun for killing people - how COOL is that?!"

And a final quibble, Lunch - my comments were not about "realism" but "plausibility". Even fantasy and dream-narratives have to have a strong internal consistency, a convincing logic to the chain of events they tell.

Froog said...

Hmmm, a friend told me last night that Llewellyn is killed.

Was he misremembering the film? (It did sound a bit as if he were thinking about the earlier shootout at the motel.)

Or is it somehow possible that I picked up a bowdlerized version? Who would edit out one scene of a film, just because they didn't like the idea of the 'hero' getting killed??

Can anyone offer any help on this?

I don't really want to go out and buy another copy of the film, just to try and check.