Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Infamous Louis Proyect Review of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

This is the initial review written by Louis Proyect, of "No Country For Old Men," that sparked controversy throughout the web. Since writing this there has been a follow-up.

I will be having an open thread on Oscar night.


Did you read what that idiot Proyect wrote about “No Country for Old Men”?


By Louis Proyect
November 19, 2007

“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.

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.

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.


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.
Louis Proyect

18 comments:

CAMINO INCIERTO said...

Un Oscar para JAVIER BARDEM

JDHURF said...

From what I've gathered Louis is right about Blood Meridian and I'm that big a fan of McCarthy, but, I have to say, Louis' review of No Country For Old Men was just plain silly. I'm so tired of people complaining about the end. Everyone wants and expects a formulaic dramatic ending which neatly wraps everything up, but, you know what? I'm personally sick and tired of standard story lines with predictable endings. I thought the Cohen brothers ending was perfect, it was an anti-climatic and poetic ending laced with symbolism and interesting dialogue; I prefer intersting dialogue to dramatic action sequences. A really unprofessional review all in all. It was nonetheless cool that Louis was cited on Rottentomatoes.

sonia said...

Why is that review "controversial" ? He isn't the first simpleton to complain that the film's ending is not conventional enough for his little pea brain to comprehend.

He should watch "Spiderman" movies with their neat endings that explain everything ad nauseum, and leave more challenging films to more intelligent people...

louisproyect said...

But it is *not* about happy or conventional endings.

Although I confess to having hoped that Llewelyn Moss would have escaped with his life and the loot, by no means was that a sine qua non. I could have accepted an unhappy ending provided that the ending had what Aristotle called a cathartic effect. Let me provide a couple of examples, including one that might be described as real existentialism as opposed to the bogus product available from Coen/McCarthy.

In 1953, Yves Montand appeared as Mario in “Wages of Fear”, one of four men hired in Mexico to transport nitroglycerine in two trucks up a rocky mountain road to a burning oil well where it will be used to snuff the fire. Like Fred C. Dobbs, the men are jobless expatriates who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

Only Mario survives the perilous trip to the oil-well. Once there, he receives a handsome fee for his services and returns down the mountain road, only to skid off accidentally and hurdle toward his death. You are stunned by his death, but immediately understand it in terms of the film’s overall existentialist message. Made in the spirit of Camus’s “Myth of Sisyphus”, it described life as an exercise in futility.

The 1962 “Lonely are the Brave” also concludes with devastating and unexpected results for an equally likable main character. Played by Kirk Douglas, the cowboy Jack Burns has broken out of jail and has fled on his horse up the side of a mountain to make his way to Mexico and freedom. Burns is not really an outlaw but gets into a bar fight simply to land up in jail where he seeks to help a rancher and old friend named Paul Bondi break out with him. It is of some interest given the current situation that Bondi has ended up in jail for helping undocumented Mexican workers get across the border. The movie’s screenplay was adapted by ex-blacklistee Dalton Trumbo from a novel by the legendary anarchist and environmentalist Edward Abbey.

Most of the film depicts Jack Burns overcoming helicopters, posses and the natural terrain. He is not only an endearing character in his own right, but a symbol of America’s rebellious subculture. Every so often the film cuts to a New Mexico highway where a trailer truck filled with toilet bowls driven by Carrol O’Connor, the future Archie Bunker, is barreling down the road. Just at the moment when Burns is crossing the road to the Mexican side where freedom awaits him, O’Connor’s truck smacks into him and his horse, thus ending the movie on an altogether bleak and disappointing note. However, the ending works because of the overall point that Abbey sought to make, namely that the forces of capitalist production tend to overwhelm the common man and woman. In other works he urged resistance but the emphasis in “Lonely Are the Brave” was the crushing and inhuman power of the system.

full: http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2008/02/06/no-country-for-old-men-a-follow-up/

louisproyect said...

Fucked up blogger commenting software truncated my url. Here it is:

No Country for Old Men: a follow-up

CAMINO INCIERTO said...

I have read your comment on the film and think that you do not like. Why?
Does it reflect poorly novel? Reflects poorly society? Is it inaccurate?

Renegade Eye said...

CAMINO INCIERTO: I didn't write this review.

The movie left some questions unanswered, about the ending. I honestly need to see it again.

When I saw it, the audience gasped at the ending.

This week I finally saw Ken Loach's "Land and Freedom."

JDHURF said...

Louis:

To begin with, I must point out that I am a regular reader of your blog, even despite my being far to the left of your apparent Trotskyism. I have found many of your posts to be of the utmost value to me, such as your critical review of Kolko’s book “After Socialism,” which, I think you sufficiently demonstrated, made a fallacious case against socialism based upon spurious misrepresentations and falsifications of socialist theory, alongside blatant ad hominem attacks, such as the unnecessary dismissal of one of my favorite Marxist theorists, Rosa Luxemburg, as being “an obscure Polish Jew.”
That and the disagreements I would obviously have with you considering my rejection of Trotskyism, I find some of your posts inexplicable, your review of No Country For Old Men being one of them.
As I concede in my first response, you appear to me by all counts to be correct about Blood Meridian and I confess to not being much of a fan of McCarthy to begin with, in fact, not a fan at all. However, that aside, your critical review appeared to me to revolve around the ending of the film, which, abrupt and anti-climatic it may be, I found to be satisfying with its poetic and symbolic dialogue and its leaving the viewer to freedom to think, instead of spoon feeding the viewer with a formulaic, predicable, action-packed wrap up of an ending.
Your response here seems to leave the question open. You discuss your knowledge and appreciation of existentialism in film, and in the process have placed several films I had not yet heard of on my “to see” list, yet you leave the question of your criticism of the specific ending of No Country For Old Men unresolved in my view. Could you perhaps expound upon this specific criticism of yours?

Fraternally

JDHURF

Graeme said...

I wasn't really that thrilled or disappointed with the movie.

Even though, at least from what I hear, it is nothing remotely even close to Upton Sinclair's book, I liked "there will be blood."

typingisnotactivism said...

firstly, fuck your "isms". If you're too weak to own a position on the basis of this world we're living in and have to back up your entire being by insisting you're justified as the product of a particular philosophical context and that you can only engage with the world through that lens then please get off my dick. You're making it itch.

secondly, i'm not into haggling with the NCFOM review by Comrade Proct, so here's the link to one i bashed out in short order as an immediate reaction to the film, and here's a shorter one for those allergic to thinking out loud.

thirdly, the ending is fucking brilliant. Anybody who misses that is ignorant, soulless, or simply seeking web traffic and anger by being flacidly "controversial". There is an interview here with the three leading men, and the final comment from Tommy Lee Jones absolutely napalms any effort to dismiss No Country For Old Men as a simple book-to-screen action narrative.

and here's a mini

BOKY said...

Hi:)
A cool blog you got here...thanks for stopping by to comment on mine:)
I found this movie review very interesting. I might even see it, although it's not my cup of tea (being that I'm an artist that tries to escape from the controversies of this world:))...I prefer escapist stuff:)
I come from an ex-communist country where the utopian system didn't exactly turn out as it was supposed to. But I admire people who don't get tired of speaking their mind about the state of the world...so keep up the good work:)

Cheers,
B

TRUTH-PAIN said...

ok Ren.... i'm gonna' check it out over the weekend and give you my best Siskel and Ebert moment when i digest the meaning of it all...

troutsky said...

I doubt I'll see the movie but the book is typical Mc Carthy faux literary pulp.Designed to entertain those who think "political correctness" is an actual concept.

CHRIS IOANNOU said...

-why is my only question. why after spending 2 and a half hours of this drek would anyone try to convince anyone else to watch it. i was duped. i advice you not to listen to the so-called "critics on this one who rant and rave over its meaningfulness. this is the only movie that when the credits started rolling i felt truly jipped. everything that made this movie interesting completely died and i was left feeling like 3 hours of my life had been literally stolen from me. shame on you, France.-

THESE ARE THE COMMENTS OF A FELLOW FOR THE EXCELLENT HANEKE'S MOVIE "CACHE"

AND THESE ARE HANEKE'S SAYINGS AFTER BEING INTERVIEWED:

''A lot of people who go to the cinema don't want this sort of thing,'' he says. ''This can be a problem for those who are educated in mainstream cinema and who want some guarantee that, at the end of the film, they can leave and forget what they have seen.''

So the question is:After watching Coen's film what is happening?

I ,personally ,liked the movie while during the movie i caught and thought some philosophical things about life ,material world,and growing older....

About the ending of the film.If i was a Cohen i would end the movie after the conversation of Llewelyn Moss's wife with
Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem).

The gambling dilemma exists only because of the psycho criminal.

And so, in our reality in our lives nowadays,the working-consuming dilemma exists only because of capitalism.

Rent Party said...

I didn't find the end strange ... I did get tired of the Bardem character, didn't understand why people are so ga-ga about him in this role. Lukewarm on the movie. I liked the acting a lot (except for Bardem) but thought more could have been done with the plot/theme ... it coulda been deep, but ended up just a thriller. Haven't read the book or any McCarthy books.

K. said...

I didn't like No Country, either. In fact, I may have liked it less than Louis. My review is here:

http://killiansaid.blogspot.com/2007/12/call-it-friend-o.html

Not that I care, but I got raked over the coals on Daily Kos (!) for pointing out the racist elements of No Country.

Patrick Roberts said...

just watched no country for old men, it's unassumingly unconventional yet (thankfully) never over-the-top. the Coen bros. deserve their Oscars; well done indeed.

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