No Country for Old Men won the best picture Oscar for 2008 and has had about 2 score people write reviews for it. I will write the normal review but have an analysis portion below that puts the story (based on the book) and the film itself in context based on the artists involved.
The plot is simple to explain but deeply complex in the telling.
While hunting, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds the remnants of a massive shootout that left all but one dead and he about to die. Among the ruins, he finds a satchel containing a huge sum of money. He takes this home and begins to formulate a plan. He feels guilty for not helping the one partial survivor, so he goes back in the middle of the night. He finds pretty quickly that he is not alone and those who have joined him are shooting at him. He hurries home and sends his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) to stay with her mother. He sets out to confuse those who have begun to chase him.
Meanwhile Sheriff Ed Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is alerted to the massacre. Because Moss had left his truck behind, Sheriff Bell uses his seriously uncommon common sense to piece together that Moss has either the money or some of the drugs that were the cause of the massacre. From here starts a chase in four parts. You will have to watch the film to see how the rest of it plays out. I will say this before getting into the rest of the review: unless you lack a sense of, or understanding of dread, then you should have goose bumps very often.
The acting was spectacular. Atonement had the same caliber of talent but it and No Country are the rare gems in this regard that I can remember in ages. The only reason that Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, and Javier Bardem stand out is the amount of time they have on the screen. One of my favorite “bit-part” actresses, Beth Grant (Carla Jean’s mother) is her usual hysterical self in a movie that has very little comedy in it.
The camera work was the Coen brothers at their best. I will get to this in the deep analysis below, but they have a sense of location that has to be seen to be understood. This very talented pair knows how to use this necessary function of filmmaking to further the symbolism in a movie already rich with symbols. They use the same sorts of framing as a sort of control, meaning they will use a framing shot with the very dark Chigurh closely followed by the same framing for Sheriff Bell. This isn’t at all unusual for the Coens.
The only thing I have any trouble with is the music, or the lack of it. The best Coen movies (Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, and especially Oh Brother Where Art Thou) have plenty of and memorable music; I cannot recall so much as one note of anything in this one. Yes it could be part of the underlying sparseness of the film, but I think it is really a layer that is missing.
The violence in the film, for some, might be gratuitous and this is a perfect lead in for the contextual analysis to follow. Violence plays a significant role in every McCarthy novel except his first The Orchard Keeper (and it still has its fair amount, but the tone of the novel is different so the violence doesn’t have the same impact). Therefore, the Coens did a good job of integrating this aspect of the novel into their film.
I highly recommend this film; it may not be for everyone, but what film ever has been?
The review is over. The contextual view follows and will likely contain plot spoilers. Much of the focus will be on McCarthy because my assumption is that fewer people will be familiar with McCarthy than with the Coens.
So much of Western literature has been about sex and death—those two facets are supposed to be the guiding principles of life and literature. This means that stories primarily about either or both become huge YAWNs. For McCarthy, the balance is entirely different. For him the primal urges are violence, fear, and death. Keep in mind, these are primal urges occurring deep in the limbic portion of the brain skipping the higher functions almost entirely. And what sets him apart from the crowd is that his language to describe these events is so lush that both the limbic and higher brains are involved in processing it. This is challenging mainly, but can also be frightening and sometimes frustrating—but in the same sense a good crossword puzzle can be frustrating. The sort of standard man vs man paradigm works only so far with McCarthy. In a similar vein, man’s inhumanity to men also only goes so far. McCarthy has found a behavioral space that is outside of hatred and where motive is vague if it is involved at all (it is not uncommon for men to fight for no decernible reason other than fight). This probably sounds silly, but Chigurh is a recent example of what I mean. I will examine him, then move back to McCarthy.
In both novel and film, No Country contains something that may not be unique, but I am so struck by it that I can’t recall ever seeing it before (and the only real analog to Chigurh in a McCarthy novel is the Judge in the utterly brilliant Blood Meridian). Chigurh is a character. He moves, speaks, bleeds, so he is “real” in that sense. However he ultimately is the avatar of what I call beige evil. Evil typically has a driver behind it, a motive. In Chigurh, what you get is not a motive-driven evil; what you get is the essence of whatever solipsistic ethic a complete sociopath maintains. He doesn’t want the money. The film makes a decision that the book does not, but even the film leaves room for the following conclusions.
The money is the reason he was hired; this was a poor choice. Chigurh is a force; he is the shadow of a dream where you are chased but when you turn around, instead of seeing nothing, you see him. Everything else is incidental. Killing isn’t a motive either; it is a gerund. One must have some activity for momentum to continue, killing is Chigurh’s avocation.
The reason money isn’t the motive is clear enough for me. He shows up in the executive office and kills the guy behind the desk—the one who apparently helped control the drug – money transfer situation. Ostensibly, this man hired him. This can be seen as motive: if he kills the folks, he gets to keep the money. The problem with this as motive is that he doesn’t kill the kingpin, just a deputy. Besides, given all that we know about him, who would be able to stop him from just taking the money—a very tiny few see him and live.
The Judge, Chigurh, and the father and son pair in The Road are characters, but they are different from the rest of the very well crafted characters. In all cases, these people for lengthy stretches become symbols or forces. The Judge is the model for a playful evil: let’s see what happens if I do this horrific act. Chigurh is already well fleshed out. The father and son in The Road are the keepers of the light (this last is unique among McCarthy’s works—a symbol of something essential to the higher brain).
Sheriff Bell and Moss are indicative of nearly all of the main characters from his other novels. Each man has a common sense that is extremely broad but has the ability to focus intensely on something in particular without losing the over all sense of preternatural native knowledge. They are closely related to characters like Marion Sylder in The Orchard Keeper and the eponymous Suttree. And each of these men and a score of others like them use relatively short sentences to make their points. Why speak more when less will do?
These men know themselves as deeply as they know their surroundings. This is the second aspect of McCarthy that is so important to his work and that works well with the style the Coens use in their better films. Location is as important as the people acting within it. He will often spend several paragraphs setting up a scene where only a few sentences are exchanged before moving on. Faulkner, someone McCarthy is often compared to, had a similar sense, but what sets the two authors apart is just how each man frames their “place.” For Faulkner, the place was a mini-universe; it was a place where, as has been said often, the illiterate consider their lives within a deep narrative using words they would never have heard, let alone understand. For McCarthy, location is more of a set piece and proving ground. McCarthy’s sense of place is limited only in the sense that he cannot spend dozens of pages describing a valley. In the same way, it is a proving ground for McCarthy to show off his style which is a mixture of beauty and sometimes frustration given the breadth of the man’s knowledge of the rarer words in English.
People unfamiliar with his work will, by and large, run into problems with what appears to be, and sometimes is, a dull look at a landscape only for that purpose. Billy Bob Thornton did a respectable job of translating All the Pretty Horses to the big screen, but it was mostly ignored. Thornton did his level best to show the landscapes as the author described in lasting detail. The problem is that the film was incorrectly billed as a romance. Those seeking romance were totally disappointed. Those knowing McCarthy may have been disappointed, but they understood (or at least I did) the attempt to show at least a reasonable attempt of explaining how McCarthy’s stories work.
Now to the Coens. Their work in Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo and Oh Brother showed that the brothers think in the language of epic. Fink was almost entirely an inside movie; however, the story still had an epic scope. The interior scenes in Miller’s had the same feel to it. Perhaps you can argue that what they do isn’t tied to location and I won’t argue; however, I would argue that they know how to integrate location into a film so that it makes sense as well as preserves the story they want to tell.
Artful directors know how to manipulate the scene and framing to increase emotion. Actors can do this with words and motions, but if you add thoughtful camera work and the impact is far greater. The Coens’ epic films allow for a level of ease that is uncommon among current directors. Since the films have such broad scenery and scope, the viewer never, or rarely, gets a sense of claustrophobia. What this permits, though, is a very wide area with which to make a point. Consider the way Chigurh walks down the hallway in the Hotel before his encounter with Moss. He is framed in the center—his entire blackness walking down the middle of a hallway that may as well have been as wide as a football field. There is no close up claustrophobia that is common or even required for focusing on the bad guy. Instead, the whole scene stretches the length of the screen. That sort of sudden dread in what was, for me, a relaxed state is like a strong muscle twitch.
I may have already gone in too long, but here seems a logical stopping place. If you watch No Country a couple of times then watch the others I’ve listed, you will see signature character types, situations, and camera use that would allow you to spot a Coen Brothers’ movie with one eye closed. The same can be said of McCarthy—but it requires both eyes.
What did you think of this review?