There are some works of art and artists that are better in excerption. For example, I’ve yet to have time to read Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy books, but picked up a cheap set at a used bookstore for that time in the future when I will have opportunity to read it. I did so mostly on the prodding of friends, and because of the man’s reputation. When I have had time to skim through books, at a bookstore, for example, and I look for strong chapter ends or memorable paragraphs, I find little in McCarthy to recommend. In some ways, he reminds me of Faulkner, with the occasional high end paragraph, but much prosaic and aimless writing in between. I got this feeling from looking through major sections of two of his latest novels, The Road and No Country For Old Men (the title taken from W.B. Yeats’ great poem Sailing To Byzantium). If one chances upon a good section, McCarthy can suck a novice reader in. But, land in 95% of the rest of the book, and one wonders, where’s the editor?
With this in mind, I have been loath to get and watch the DVD of the Coen Brothers’ 2007 adaptation of No Country For Old Men, as the novel seemed to be substandard thriller material, not something of real literary value. But, hey, it got across the board high critical marks, and won that year’s Best Film Oscar (but so did Titanic and Crash), so I finally decided to give it a try, getting the 3 disk digital copy version real cheaply.
Where do I begin?
Do I start with a litany of just how wrongheaded all the favorable reviews were? Do I tear apart the paper-thin screenplay and the utter lack of character development? Do I compare it to its critical rival from the same year- There Will Be Blood; another film wildly overrated? Or do I just wonder how the Coens can be so mediocre, at best, in their ostensibly dramatic/violent/serious films that get praise (Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, and this film), yet so underrated for their terrific comedies/less serious films that get critical indifference (The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and The Ladykillers)? In fact, having now seen a major portion of the brothers’ output, I can safely say that they seem to be the anti-Shakespeares: great at comedies and so-so in dramas.
Let’s go in order, and let me dispense with the nonsensical and over the top criticism. Since most review sites have the film’s approval ratings in the high 90s, or thereabouts, I will offer only two (of thousands) reviews that are wrongheaded. The first is from Internet critic James Berardinelli:
Expecting normalcy from a Coen Brothers production is a pointless endeavor, but anticipating brilliance isn't outlandish….The story is full of unexpected twists and switchbacks, and opportunities for the audience to gear down and take a breath are few and far between. Like Alfred Hitchcock with Psycho, the filmmakers don’t want viewers to become too comfortable with any of the characters…He's probably the most compelling screen villain since Anthony Hopkins brought Hannibal Lecter to life in The Silence of the Lambs….And, while the ending may be a sore point for some, it will have others chuckling and nodding their heads appreciatively (albeit perhaps after a brief "WTF?" when the end credits begin to roll). That's what good cinema is expected to do
Berardinelli starts his review with a copout, by bracing viewers with the fact that if they do not get the film it is because those zany Coens are just too brilliant for the average viewer. We then get the fact that the plot meanders all over the place set up as a good thing. It would be did any of the plot twists make sense. Instead, all we get is a cartoon villain (and in this the comparison of the film’s villain to the overrated and cartoonish Hannibal Lecter is apt) whose motive is never explained (is he an independent scumbag who just likes to kill? A gun for hire? Does he work for the Mexican drug dealers? Americans?), yet who has a superhuman ability to survive gunshot wounds, evade law enforcement, and walk away from auto accidents while no one says a word. In effect, he’s more a combination of Hannibal Lecter and The Terminator, with a dash of Heath Ledger’s superhuman The Joker from The Dark Knight. But, the first two Terminator films were actually good, and played within the ‘rules’ of their own diegetic reality. This film does not, as its villain traverses time and space at will, killing people who offer no resistance.
But, if Berardinelli is typical in excusing bad points of the film, Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert goes absolutely hyperbolic in overpraise:
Consider another scene in which the dialogue is as good as any you will hear this year. Chigurh enters a rundown gas station in the middle of wilderness and begins to play a word game with the old man (Gene Jones) behind the cash register, who becomes very nervous. It is clear they are talking about whether Chigurh will kill him. Chigurh has by no means made up his mind. Without explaining why, he asks the man to call the flip of a coin. Listen to what they say, how they say it, how they imply the stakes. Listen to their timing. You want to applaud the writing, which comes from the Coen brothers, out of McCarthy....This movie is a masterful evocation of time, place, character, moral choices, immoral certainties, human nature and fate.
Yes, the scene with the store clerk is well written, and there are a few other scenes like that- and even better. But, is there ANY depth? I mean, Chigurh is nuts, and is a game player. Is he discoursing on the nature of life or the cosmos, or just justifying his own sick needs? Obviously, the latter; yet this so rapts Ebert? In that scene, the man survives, but the character played by Woody Harrelson, in a similar scene, does not. Why? Because he knows Chigurh and ends up dead? The store owner clearly does NOT know the extent of Chigurh’s psychopathy. And while the film does indeed do well in capturing small town Western Texas people’s quirks, it provides nothing to talk about later. It is not existential, it is not deep, and there is no need to rewatch the film; even for the ending which Berardinelli points out, sticks with one, if only because it is so at odds with the rest of the film, as the Tommy Lee Jones character pontificates on a dream with no real relevance to the shallow tale that has unfolded, yet which is so obviously appended to the tale to give the film some retro-philosophizing.
However, while the critical community was in near harmony on the ‘greatness’ of this film, there were some interesting dissents. The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane wrote:
....the Coens certainly honor the novelist’s abiding preference for the mythical over the modern….So what do we end up with? Well, as a thriller, “No Country for Old Men” is tight, pointed, and immune to the temptations of speed. I found myself in the same predicament with the film as with the book—approaching both in a state of rare excitement, yet willing myself, all too soon, to be more engaged than I actually was.…we gradually realize that “No Country for Old Men” is not telling a tale—the plot remains open-ended—but reinforcing the legend of a place, like a poem adding to an oral tradition. Texas is presented as a state of being, where good and evil circle doggedly around each other, and it just doesn’t occur to Moss that he could take his black bag, catch a flight, and seek a world elsewhere. I was awed by the control of the movie, which seems as pressurized as Chigurh’s murder machine, but after an hour and a quarter I felt that it had made its point and done all the damage it could. In the event, it crawls past the two-hour mark, and you sense that the Coens, like their unkillable villain, are prepared to go on forever.
I would disagree with the claim that the film is tight, for there are huge chunks of repetitive nonsense (just how many stungunned victims need we see taunted to get Chigurh’s M.O.?), and even Lane disagrees with himself by the end of this excerpt, but he is correct that the film seems more concerned with adding legendry to a place than a good story to one’s mind. And, at over two hours, the film runs out of steam before the hour mark. A reviewer in The Hollywood Reporter is even harsher:
Plot holes, cracker-barrel philosophizing and setting a major climactic scene offscreen serve to undo all their fine work. The entire premise of the film is to pitch three men onto a path that will lead to a final reckoning, but it just peters out.
A reviewer at the website Reel Talk probably gave the best assessment, as it also rips into two of the other overpraised mediocrities the Coen Brothers produced, while praising the overlooked masterpiece by John Sayles, Lone Star:
Replacing the brothers’ habitual actors with imaginative others, their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel reflects the difficult plotting of Miller’s Crossing and the incomprehension of Fargo’s common citizens confronting evil. However, under the influence of the later Tarantino school of visual splatter -- does blood really run so copiously across wood floors? -- it never achieves the earlier works’ depth of droll relationships and character….Uncerebral for the Coens, this one is geared to the youngish crowd, even with its gratuitous talk of an older generation scratching its head over emerging society’s motiveless malignancy. Truer complexity is in John Sayles’s Lone Star (1996), likewise about murder and sire-and-son sheriffs (plus an army colonel alienated from both his father and his son), where border-town Frontera reflects racial tensions with blacks as well as with the Mexicans who in No Country are caricature drug dealers, mariachi band members or sleepy crossing guards….Although an exciting movie, the Coens’ multi-award winner is in the end not among their memorable best. Honest irony requires distance, while wise screen violence needs emotional depth below surface technique.
Another dissent came from the reviewer for The Washington Post:
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.
Spot on. And another from this website:
On its way to becoming the decade's most overrated movie, No Country for Old Men has already been compared to everything from Greek tragedy to the Old Testament….Despite its adaptation status, this is practically a summarization of Coens conceits, and there lies its main problem: All theme and no life, the movie is like a skeleton without flesh, and it rattles around in the big canvas of ponderous Meaning it sets up for itself. The Chigurh character perfectly embodies this puffed-up ambition -- designed as one of the "signs and wonders" bemoaned by Bell, the Grim Reaper in a Beatles mop-top, he's really just some peevish bad-guy out of Diamonds are Forever asked to shoulder the weight of a pernicious metaphor. A stupendously crafted exercise, unquestionably, and one hopes the beginning of a whole new phase in the Coens oeuvre. Yet I can't help think that the people heralding it as just about the greatest film of all time are simply having their own bleak notions cannily fondled by the Coens' worldview, where goodness is often equated with stupidity and death (and, therefore, life) is random and meaningless. A masterpiece? If this really were the highest form of cinema possible, I sincerely wouldn't have loved the medium the way I have all these years.
This review makes a point about the film I always make about poor adaptations, and that is that most poor adaptations do not ruin great works, but never improve upon flawed ones. And, a pattern should be emerging. Much like the old tale of The Seven Blind Men And The Elephant, many of these reviewers hit upon a point or two of the film’s failures, without getting the whole. Case in point, a counter-review from the same website as above:
The quiet, the solitude, the tension, the photography, and the wit are all up against what I view as the story's uncertain intent; largely stereotyped caricatures; lack of a central character; muddled themes; melodramatic, pulp-fiction action; and disappointing finish….Let's start with film's intent, since that is the basis for most of my criticism. If this had been a straight-ahead thriller or even a gentle send-up of the action genre, I would gladly have accepted the exaggerated shenanigans that go on in the story. I love movies like "Pulp Fiction," "Kill Bill," "Sin City," and "Grindhouse." But the Coens' movie purports to be more than that. The tone of "No Country" has "high moral content" written all over it. That's where the trouble lies for me; the filmmakers clearly mean their bloody crime tale to represent some profound comment on American society and its declining moral values, a sort of thriller for the intellectual set. Yet I found the movie's somber attempts at enlightenment at odds with its corny theatrics. It's like trying to find some deep, inner meaning in "Die Hard."….Which leaves the bad guy, the psychotic, automaton killer, Chigurh, as the only other candidate for main character….Chigurh simply degenerates into another Jason, Freddy, Michael Myers, or Schwarzengger evil Terminator. He is one of those villains who is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. He's all-knowing, all powerful, and everywhere at once, sporting a Prince Valiant hairdo and dragging a slaughtering gun behind him….As I see it, the movie is sending out conflicting messages, which would be fine if the movie had developed any of them, which it doesn't. For the viewer, it becomes an exercise in frustration.
Is there really anything to disagree with? The Kill Bill comparison is especially apt, as it embraces its comic book nature, whereas this film eschews it, to its own detriment. The final negative review, and I’ve posted all I could come upon in a quick online search, comes from, believe it or not, the dinosaurian Andrew Sarris, whose dislike of the film seems more reflective of a disdain for the writing of Cormac McCarthy rather than the derivative film itself:
As for the nihilism on display in No Country for Old Men, the collaboration between the Coen brothers and Cormac McCarthy was a marriage made in heaven or, more likely, hell….I will not describe the narrative in any great detail both because I would be perceived as spoiling the “fun” of discovering the many surprises for yourself, and because I cannot look at it and write about it in any other way than as an exercise in cosmic futility. Yet, I’m not sorry I saw it over a running time of 122 minutes, just about the length of time I’d like to spend on a quick in-and-out visit to hell.
Ok, we’ve surveyed the critical pros and cons, so on to the poor screenplay. This is the flaw of the Coens themselves. Whether or not they were fidel to the book is meaningless to a filmgoer. The tale presented is just loopy. It’s the summer of 1980, in the vast west Texas desert high country. A laconic sheriff named Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) seems clueless about the increasing drug trade. He and his deputy come upon a scene of a drug shootout. Earlier, a hunter named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) found the drug deal, and took over $2 million from a satchel he found. He then does two things that always damn a film- he slips into Dumbest Possible Action mode. 1) He returns at night to help give water to a Mexican who’s still alive after the massacre, after initially letting the guy go thirsty, and barely escapes with his life, leaving his truck behind to be found and traced, and 2) he keeps the money (with a tracking device) in its initial satchel, never bothering to switch it to another container, nor check the DRUG money for a tracking device. He then sends his wife to stay with her mother in Odessa, Texas, after a hitman named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) starts chasing him.
Nothing, it seems, can stop Chigurh- certainly not Bell, who oddly seems content to let his underlings die at Chigurh’s hands, as well as drug dealers and a boatload of bystanders, while he reads the newspaper about depredations in that weird land known as California. Chigurh is equally unrealistic, to the other extreme. He is invincible, getting into buildings and high tech security buildings with the ease of his stun gun and the accuracy of his silencer-laden rifle. On their trail are both Sheriff Bell and a hitman/bounty hunter named Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson); although who has hired whom is never clear, for Chigurh murders not only a sheriff’s deputy, and innocent bystanders, but several of the people who ostensibly know and hired him. Although he seems to not care for anything, he oddly cares for the money Moss has taken. Moss, naturally ends up dead, although there is conflicting evidence as to who actually did him in. Bell sees a car full of Mexicans driving away from the scene of Moss’s murder (they had stalked his wife and mother-in-law), but there is also evidence Chigurh was there. Chigurh then goes to Moss’s wife’s home and offers to flip a coin as to whether or not he will kill her. That decision is never answered by the film, as Chigurh drives away and is then in a car accident. He has a broken arm, but pays a boy for his shirt to make a sling. He walks away and the film ends with Bell pretentiously recounting two banal dreams to the audience. Then blackout.
The film, as shown above, is often called a thriller or Gothic, but neither term really applies. It’s not Gothic because it is too tied to the earthen landscape, and it’s barely a thriller, because, well, it’s so predictable. It’s simply a monster movie- a bit more realistic than the Hannibal Lecter/Freddy Krueger sort, but not much. One wonders what the film would have been like if the assassin Chigurh had been more like the hitman character played by Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai, Jim Jarmusch’s underrated film about an assassin, which is also one of the most realistic depictions of organized crime on film. R, perhaps he could be more erratically real, like Johnny Boy, Robert De Niro’s psychotic character from Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, another realistic depiction of organized crime. Instead, what does Chigurh offer besides The Terminator and The Joker? Yes, another Batman foe, Two-Face’s obsession with coin flipping to decide whether or not he commits murder. Perhaps in his construction of the novel, McCarthy thought that this device was somehow deep or profound, that it lent Chigurh the status of cosmic force of nature, but what it really did was explicitly tie the character down to a comic book level realism. And, incidentally, Two-Face was played by Jones in 1995’s Batman Forever.
But, to get back to the point I raised, the film is SO predictable. Do we not know how Chigurh’s victims will end up? Do we not know that he will escape at the end, despite the bone of the car crash tossed in to make it seem like cosmic justice will out? Do we not know Moss is a dead man? That is wife is also a walking corpse? That Sheriff Bell will prove as incompetent as he is apathetic? And, I earlier mentioned the overrated Paul Thomas Anderson film, There Will Be Blood, but since both films so posture themselves on ‘depth’ in dealing with their amoral characters, it’s a wonder why so few critics took these films to task for never truly delving into that amorality. Great, amoral characters- see Films, Slasher (20th Century). Yawn. Yet, of the two films, and even laden with its own considerable flaws, it still has some occasionally interesting moments wrought by the acting abilities of Daniel Day-Lewis (although that film’s lead character is not amongst his best). Is there a single character in this film with a fifth of the complexity of Lewis’s Daniel Plainview, even considering how thin that character is developed? No. Simple. No. And that is the same answer to give to the query over whether this film is worth rewatching.
On to the DVD features. There are three disks- one to download a digital copy onto one’s PC (thanks, I’ll pass), then the disk with the film. Unfortunately, it lacks an audio commentary. One of the prime things a DVD has in its favor, as a mode of visual art, is the ability to feature commentaries on films, and barring a Woody Allen-like decision yo always forego such, it is incumbent upon DVD companies to include such, especially to supplement mediocre films like this. The disk also has a good making of featurette, a film on working with the Coen Brothers, and a small piece on Tommy Lee Jones’ character. The final disk has a bevy of features: a tongue in cheek featurette shot by Josh Brolin, and a slew of clips regarding the promotion of the film over several months- from interviews to book store appearances to radio interviews. All in all, a decent bonus features package. But, the lack of audio commentary is glaring.
As for the film itself, on the technical side, the cinematography by Roger Deakins is solid to good. At times the views of West Texas are very Antonionian, whereas, at others, little is made of perspective, framing, and editing. Carter Burwell’s scoring leaves no impression, one way or the other. The acting is rather pedestrian- from the stilted Bardem to the so laid back he’s barely acting Jones to the solid Brolin. And, as I opened this essay by stating, some things are better excerpted. This film’s trailer is proof, for it is engaging, unlike the film. The last 15 or so minutes of the film, after Moss’s death, are utterly superfluous, for they add nothing to the plot, which is the primum mobile of the film. The film would have been much better had its rather incisive portrayals of small town Texans and their quirks been given more screen time, and then a reduced scenario of the drug chase, with more realistic characters, were added to that brew. But, alack, this might require work, and thought, and too often, in Hollywood (including the vaunted Coen Brothers) these sorts of things simply cannot be bothered with. Instead, the small time characters flit in and out of this film with such rapidity that they are lucky that a few of them rise above stereotypes. Fair enough, I guess, if you consider film a business first. I consider it an art first, so be equally fair and give the Coens the same in return as they gave to their screenplay: don’t bother with their film. After all, your time and money are as precious as any film investor’s. No?