I will be having an open thread on Oscar night.
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