Friday, December 07, 2007

No Country for Old Men

Much has already been said, critically and otherwise, about No Country for Old Men’s “hunter becoming the hunted” and the prospects of Javier Bardem winning an Oscar (which would be great). While such clichés citing overt and somewhat elementary symbolism flow like sentimentalism from a Spielberg movie, the more sinister and indicting themes at the core of this story confound such reductive criticism while demanding attention. Contrary to the popular notions of chic hipsters, Country doesn’t settle for merely achieving pop-genre status but, like many of the great films, resists simple classification and generalization to the effect of appealing to multiple tastes and sensibilities while being pointedly insightful. Of course the tense story and action, paced by remarkable editing, grabs our focus as well as our concern. But where the film becomes the most fascinating is in its acute awareness of cultural politics in America.

Although Llewelyn Moss is a sympathetic character who gets drawn into a treacherous stalking match, it’s significant that we understand him as a truly opportunistic guy who is determined to keep a bundle of money he gained by shady chance. That this money is someone else’s never deters him from trying to keep it even though he clearly understands that doing so puts him and his family at terrible risk. This act seems to characterize more of the McMahonian notion of capitalist expectation than one would normally assign to a poor schmuck being stalked by a raging psychopath. To ignore this and idealize a protagonist’s morally dubious actions based on our empathetic support is a remarkably dangerous practice and one that is deftly exploited by the Coens and award winning novelist, Cormac McCarthy.

Similarly, at the center of the film’s parade of ubiquitous and abrupt violence is the idea that no one is exempt and punishment (or dire consequence), however unjust, is inevitable. The fact that neither lawful nor vigilante retribution has a marked effect on minimizing the imminent brutality that Anton Chigurh brings further parallels a culture muddled in paradox and misconception. This is not to say that the film promotes fatalism, but only that it has its finger on the proverbial button of our societal conundrum of violence and terror. As Sherriff Bell’s narration brilliantly bookends the film, we understand the layered and self reflexive irony that veterans returning from conflict are doomed to relive the same madness at home.

No Country for Old Men evokes a haunting vision of social anxiety in America, defying our best efforts to evade responsibility in a way that could generically be considered post neo-western-noir. Despite the ambiguity of such categorization, we could also surmise that the Coen’s have made a masterful adaptation of a striking novel. More importantly, however, the filmmakers appear to have not only been faithful but have had faith in their source material – a virtue to be sure. If artists continue to make comparable renderings because of such stark and relevant works (i.e. if Moss really is America’s redneck Everyman) then our cultural position is bleak indeed.

Assessment: Many stars

[Previously posted @ Boast]

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Blogger Bryan Summers said...

Intersting and insightful commentary. I loved this movie. I even loved the ending, but I'm glad it was spoiled for me. Otherwise I might have been disappointed.

7:59 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

A lot of people were really bothered by the ending. In these cases, I think it works better to think of Sheriff Bell, rather than Moss, as the protagonist which he clearly is in the book.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Brandon said...

I also loved the ending. Totally caught me offguard. Right when the screen went to black and the "written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen" came up, someone in the theatre behind me said "wow." That summed up the whole film. One of my students saw it at the Jordan Commons, and he said someone in the the theatre behind him shouted "What the F--- was that?!" I guess he was expecting Die Hard.

It's also fascitating that the Coens made this. I was worried that they were getting stuck in a rutt, a la Tim Burton or Wes Anderson, just making the same films over and over. But they were so restrained and un-gimicky with this one. Seems more like Eastwood or early Coppola, but with hints of their quirky charm (especially in the bit parts).

I couldn't help comparing this to "Hudsucker Proxy." Each seems to represent different worldviews. In Hudsucker, there is a God, there is repentance, there is a second chance. No Country, on the other hand, is more a Dostoevskyien world without God, where there is no repentance, there's no right and wrong (of course we feel Chigurh's actions to be wrong, but who's to say?), there's only death and survival of the fittest.

9:31 AM  
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10:16 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

I also loved No Country - probably my best film experience of 2007. I served most of my mission in Del Rio and around Eagle pass where much of the action took place - i've always wanted to see a story take place around those border towns.

It's interesting that in many of the Coen's films there is a kind of symbolic characterization of an evil opposition mixed with absolute justice (or something).

Blood Simple - the horrific P.I.
Raising Arizona - the apocolyptic motorcyclist
Barton Fink - John Goodman's character
O Brother - the apocalyptic law man
No Country - Anton Chigur

these aren't typical antagonists.
all of these roles tend to be broad and conceptual depictions of ideas rather than characterizations of real people (not that sociopaths don't exist).

that's not a knock from me (although a lot of people find it hard to watch coen's brothers stuff because the characters are often a little cartoony).

it's just a different kind of characterization. it seems to me like it's a device to portray existential ideas and address themes in a more conceptual way.

for me it works because it doesn't feel forced. the acting, writing, and direction is so on that i don't get lost in the ideas that the character is representing.

it really bugs me when a movie tries to do the same thing and fails (see 'the chumscrubber' - or don't)

i think it probably makes it harder for actors to play such concept driven roles but if they can pull it off like Borden did it's a real treat. and i think it makes him all the more deserving for an award.

4:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ok, so I saw this film again and I still don't understand why Woody Harrelson's character needs to be in it. In fact I think it would be better without him. The film is so lean until then. I did however appreciate how the main characters switch on you. Imagine if Janet Leigh showed up for the third act of Psycho and the story continued with her.
When Josh Brolin's character dies off screen, there is a bit of a disconnect, and the jump back to Tommy Lee Jones' allows the story to solidify a theme. It's pretty smart because it's got a great chase movie couched in a thoughtfull philisophical moment in a sheriff's life.

This film reminds me alot of Se7en because it asks it's audience to deal with something tidal rather than singular. Tommy Lee Jones's Character reminds me of Morgan Freeman's character in that he just doesn't understand or is overwhelmed by the nature of the evil.

(I am told that "Blood Simple", "Miller's Crossing" and "No Country" are a kind of thematic trilogy and that one should see them all together. Anyway I have not seen those other two so there may be some Coen love yet to develop.)

4:42 PM  

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