As Cool As A Fruitstand

…and maybe as strange. A movie blog.

Back to no country

Posted by Hedwig on February 20, 2008

The Coen series finally came to a conclusion yesterday with my second viewing of No Country For Old Men. And well… there is something I feel I should confess: I try mighty hard to come across as determined and opinionated and right, but the truth is I’m someone very prone to doubting her own thoughts and opinions. So after a number of friends told me they didn’t see the point of the Coens’ latest, and a rather vicious discussion in response to my review on filmtotaal, I started to question my dedication to this movie.

Who knew? Maybe it really wasn’t so great. Maybe I was influenced by writers I admire, maybe I was just practicing “intellectual masturbation”. Maybe I was just kidding myself, pretending that I “got” the movie, to feel superior and smart. Maybe I was simply too afraid to disagree with critical consensus. Maybe the emperor did, in fact, have no clothes on.

I needn’t have been scared: not only is the emperor fully dressed, but my, does he look handsome. ***SPOILERS WITHIN***

I have to admit, I understand people who aren’t over the moon about this one. People who hate it? Those are a total mystery to me. But admittedly, on the surface, there are quite a few arguments to be made against it. Take Carson Wells, for example. He’s an extraneous character, only introduced about halfway through the movie, and not strictly necessary for the story. He’s also a bit of a cartoon, with his rather precious way of dressing and his volubility.

But everyone who objects to the character of Carson on those grounds shows all too clearly why the movie doesn’t work for him or her. True, Wells has no real function in the surface story, merely just another slight obstacle for Chigurh, merely another illustration of Chigurh’s instoppability. But Wells is also -before Carla Jean- the only character we see who knows exactly what’s in store for him, who sits across from Chigurh, facing his own death. Both say “You don’t have to do this”. Both call his crazy. Neither escapes, though Carla Jean gets to resist Chigurh’s principles most explicitly.

The second time around you notice more typical details, and even more so after seeing almost all the Coens’ previous movies in the past two months. Their obsession with doorways, as evidenced for instance by Ellis’ story here, is particularly prominent, and even specified to locks in particular. And there are so many doublings they are hard to keep track of.

Most of the parallels are between Chigurh and Moss, two hunters: one hunts animals, one kills humans as if they were cattle, even with an instrument used to kill cattle. And as Ed Tom says so eloquently (and I suspect this line was lifted verbatim from the book), “even in the contest between man and steer the issue is not certain”. This quote is crucial because it allows the viewer hope that the prey (Moss) could get the best of the ruthless, practiced killer.

But even if it’s Chigurh hunting Moss in this case, the men aren’t that different. Moss wounds an antelope, but doesn’t kill it, and it gets away. Likewise, Moss later gets shot with a shotgun, but he managed to get away, and bandages himself. Later, he will shoot Chigurh with a shotgun, and Chigurh will almost simultaneously wound him with his strange weapon. They both stalk away. This time, Chigurh does take care of his own wounds, but Llewelyn cannot, and you can see his encounter with the Mexicans, leading to his waking up in a hospital with Wells at his side, as the beginning of his downfall, the moment he loses.

There are quite a few other mirrorings: Chigurh and Moss both telling someone/some animal to ‘hold still’ (though Chigurgh adds ‘please’), both of them getting a piece of clothing from a stranger, both follow the blood trail of those they wounded, and so on. And then of course there’s the whole rhythm of the first half of the movie: we first see Llewelyn somewhere, then Chigurh, and finally Ed Tom, surveying the aftermath. The mess.

The first time around, it was Javier Bardem’s powerhouse performance that stayed with me. I still will be very satisfied if he wins that golden statuette, but this second time, it was Tommy Lee Jones’ more subtle work I noticed. The way the creases on his weary face move, the way he uses his voice. Maybe we’ve just gotten used to TLJ being reliable great, but this performance ranks among his best: he’s not just tired and jaded, but scared, too, and it shows in the details.

I could go on. Trust me, I could. About how Chigurh has the kind of natural charisma that makes people instinctively do as he says. About Carla Jean being the heart of this movie, not just because she refuses to go along with Chigurh’s game, but mostly because she’s the only character in the film who mourns, who shows that those Chigurh kills aren’t just cattle. About dead dogs and live cats. But I’ve already written too much, and since my birthday dinner was accompanied by quite a bit of alcohol, I might not be as coherent as I imagine I am.

I still don’t know if No Country for Old Men is truly a movie for the ages, don’t know if it adds up to anything. What I do know is that it was as fascinating the second time as the first, and that last night’s viewing is very unlikely to be the last one.


David Denby has some interesting things to say about the Coens. I mostly disagree with him, but the man can write, and he brings up some valid points.

5 Responses to “Back to no country”

  1. Happy belated birthday Hedwig. I’ve been on the road hence my visits have been less frequent.

    You made me nervous with your opening to this post! I feared you were going to change your mind. I also run into confidence issues when forming a strong opinion that seems to go against the grain.

    With No Country, I feel more and more vindicated the farther I get from it. Only time will tell if it holds up, but I think it will.

  2. sarcastig said

    Thanks 😀

    You’re right in your objection against the label “instant classic”, and to be honest, I still like The Man Who Wasn’t There and probably even The Big Lebowski better than No Country for Old Men, but the fact remains it’s an indelible experience, and I’m glad I got to see it in the cinema twice: I’m not sure it’ll retain its power on a smaller screen, and in fact, many of the people I know who didn’t like it saw it in a smaller format.

  3. I don’t think I could pick a truly best Coen movie. I’m biased towards all of them to one degree or another. I may have sentimental favorites, but they all have something to offer.

  4. sarcastig said

    “best” is always a tricky label, isn’t it? I mean, The Big Lebowski is undoubtedly the movie with the highest rewatchability factor, but The Man Who Wasn’t There does more to me, on both an aesthetic and an emotional level. As for No Country for Old Men, that is, without a doubt, the tensest one of them all, and the one that makes me think most. But the ‘best’? That choice can never be more than arbitrary, and I’m fully aware of that.

  5. Joel Thorson said

    I think there’s a veiled element of allegory in “No Country.” It doesn’t need to be received that way to be gripping, and I didn’t experience it that way while sitting in the theater. But the problems it poses — especially the abstract, absolute, supernatural evil embodied by the Bardem character — start to make more sense if you view them allegorically.

    The symbolic correlate for Anton Chigurh is the power of money looming over today’s world — not money as you and I understand it, signifying sustenance and freedom, but international global capital on a mythic scale beyond ordinary people’s comprehension. Commonplace greed and cunning like those of the Brolin character have no chance against this new power. It’s a heartless, pitiless, implacable force that cares nothing about the humans who created the system of markets and securities and investments in which it grows and thrives. It has taken on a life of its own which obeys no law, and now feeds on the hopes, dreams and lifeblood of mere humans.

    In this sense Chigurh is a kind of modern-day Frankenstein — an artificial creation who turns on his creator. His characterization is realized (intentionally, I think) in an obliquely Frankensteinish way, right down to the lumbering gait.

    This view also makes more sense of the retired sheriff’s rumination at the end. Like us he has lived his life according to his personal sense of honor and responsibility. In his time and his father’s before him, events were instigated by humans and governed by character and accountability. An individual of virtue and courage, like all those Jimmy Stewart characters, could stand up to bullies and save the town from evil. But while the sheriff was living his life according to his code, the world was changing, and the transformation has been fundamental and decisive. The machinery of capital has triumphed over all restraint and now reigns supreme. Events are driven by unseen forces that hold human beings in their grip. Once caught up in the machinery, men turn into monsters who will murder without pity or remorse in the service of their new masters. Anton Chigurh is the epitome of competence in this new world order, which the sheriff finds so alien: hence the title.

    I had to think about this movie a long time, but I’m now sure that these are the ideas that must have been bubbling in the back of Cormack McCarthy’s consciousness while the narrative was pouring out of his typewriter.

    I don’t usually value allegory very highly as a narrative device, but this yarn was so cunningly concealed as a noir crime drama, and worked so well on that level, that it has since become one of my all-time favorite movies. Its power is in the subordination of its moral concerns, so basic and powerful, to the urgency of the narrative. The underlying import is never explicitly revealed, even in the epilog.

    Gotta see it again; gotta read the book.

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