No Country For Old Men

No Country for Old Men has yearned patiently for years to become a film...

Two of them, to be exact.

The book was written in 2005. Even before this film's recent Oscar roundup, the trumpets had officially been sounded, and the Cormac McCarthy stampede was upon us. Ridley Scott will film McCarthy's "Blood Meridian," and "The Road" (an Oprah Book Club Selection!) will star Viggo Mortenson and Guy Pearce. And so we exclaim: Who is this guy, anyway?? It's OK. You may be forgiven for not caring.

I have always kept Joel and Ethan Coen (to their best friends, "The Coen Brothers") on my unofficial list of "directors to watch," which means, if nothing else, that I watch their films. Admittedly, the experience of watching No Country For Old Men was joyous. I was rapt and smiling, savoring the very thing that had got me into the theater in the first place: a Coen's film. I was happy and content to take it at face value, seeing what the directors would do with what I was sure was heaping dose of standard 1970's western pulp. However, as "The Academy" has seen fit to anoint the film it's Best Picture, a bit of further examination is required.

No Country's cast is one of it's most enjoyable strengths (if we excuse the lazy choice of Beth Grant doing a crappy imitation of an aging southern belle as Kelly Macdonald's mother.) Tommy Lee Jones in particular, ostensibly as the "Old Man" of the looming title, now seems to prove his immense value with every role. Hollywood is suffering the loss of many once-prolific 60-something actors from the drawing pool (*COUGH Gene Hackman COUGH,*) and the more wrinkly and deliberate Jones gets, the more important he is. He is also the closest thing that this decade has to a bona fide Western star.

But No Country isn't a western exactly, despite the double-wides and pick-up trucks and cact.. i. The praising of Javier Bardem (as the villain Chigurh) is warranted. Chigurh excretes the mania of serial killer brain disease with solitary, passionless precision, and I haven't been this tense in a theater since "Zodiac." People are killed in gruesome ways, in motels and on the freeway, all across the state. For what? A stolen suitcase of cash, of course, death following it like bloodthirsty dog. And here we find an apt place to draw our first (of many) comparisons to Fargo. Both films involve the pursuit of money, with an old-fashioned product of the town (the local Sheriff) giving casual chase.

You've seen it before, and so have I, but it's probably never been this good. McCarthy's story may be pulp, but it's the kind of pulp you can't resist. The Coens have an unrivaled mastery for recreating irresistible, bygone worlds, both with their words and with their visuals. In this case, their words they are aided by the source novel, and their images are aided by the god-like DP work of Roger Deakins, who has accompanied them through nearly all of their most important films. Where are we off to this time, gentlemen? 70's Texas. How giddily perfect a world for them to inhabit. So, what's not to like, right? Well, almost everything, actually. And No Country for Old Men doesn't care.

This may be the coldest movie ever set in Texas. It's crushingly, coldly bleak. Ice cold. Colder than Marge Gunderson's mittens. That doesn't exactly ratchet up the scores at the test screenings. This movie definitely does not stick around to tuck you in and give you a kiss before it leaves. The lights just go out and the floor is cold and you probably won't be able to sleep, anyway. But it's late as hell.

That being said, the ending is as perfect as can be, and the widespread criticism of it completely fucking baffles me. A beautiful monologue, almost certainly lifted directly from the novel. We return to the closest thing to a good heart that has shown itself in this miserable place, and therein we find pure, aching poetry. The summation of this simple hero's life and his uncertain search for meaning in a world of bleak randomness. It remarks on a fleeting, uncertain possibility of comfort and finality, of mortality, and then the moment's gone.
Our hero quietly pines not for the contents of that suitcase, but for a world which does not value it above all else. He is detached from himself and his work, resigned to a dwindling hope and an aging sense of duty. An odd choice for the Coens, long noted as meticulous, careful craftsmen; the film proves and preaches like a big, blustery Texas minister the sad, lonely, random disintegration of (all?) lives. With No Country For Old Men, the Coens and McCarthy pinpoint and calculatedly manipulate this unhinged randomness into a coherent and thrilling parable of greed. The exercise is as truthful as it is truly breathtaking. But allow yourself a few looong moments to come down off the this breakneck movie's cloud, and you may be a bit surprised at how worked up you got.

Now, with the film's not-surprising near sweep of the Oscars, the Academy cements it's castrated reputation and awards yet ANOTHER mid-career achievement Oscar to a film which, though easily more voter-friendly than nearly all of their previous works (probably excepting Fargo,) feels like a minor addition to their resumes (also see; Scorsese, The Departed.) The Coens seemed acutely aware of this, and it showed in their glaringly unappreciative and defiantly curt acceptance speeches, which seemed poorly disguised as shy and soft-spoken. They quipped about being selective, "only adapting Homer and Cormac McCarthy," perhaps a hefty swat at the author's thus-far unearned reputation as a genre master. But for all of No Country's impressive craftsmanship, it feels rather passionless. Much like the actions of Chigurh, who kills as if he has studied the activity, No Country's motions (and it's conspicuously absent motives) are executed with skill, not flair. With films such as The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and Raising Arizona demonstrating such moments of great humor and beauty, the funereal tone of No Country is conspicuous, and Hollywood's embrace of it even more so.

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