Tuesday, August 23, 2016

No Country for Old Men Review

I'm old. I'm going to be dead soon. Yup. That's all I got.

The McGuffin

The Bear just finished watching the film, No Country for Old Men (2007). If you haven't seen it, but might, there are SPOILERS here.

The Bear gives No Country for Old Men 2 Fish out of 5.  It's depressing. It will probably roll over your Cymbalta like a tank. It is well made, but hollow. Nothing matters. Blind chance rules over us. We are none of us in the movie we think we are. We are all stalked by the hitman with the bad haircut.

You may know that Alfred Hitchcock named the plot element that drives the storyline "the macguffin." It can be anything - a person, a thing - so long as the protagonist is after it. Frequently, it is not even that important.  No Country for Old Men makes the macguffin transparently inconsequential in the long run. It also defeats audience expectations by killing off nearly all the characters the audience cares about.

Yes the Bear knows it won academy awards. Why should the Bear care? Because Hollywood produces America's dreams. What does this film say?

The Plot is not the Story - It's About a Hopeless Old Dude Who Will Soon Be Dead

But who is the main character in the movie? Why, it's the guy who doesn't do anything much at all, and has very little screen time. The Bear doesn't even remember the name of his character, if he had one. The sheriff: Tommy Lee Jones. The guy with almost no lines, at the end of his career. He's not just looking forward to retirement. He's looking ahead to the end of his life without any consolation from religion.

At the end, the sheriff, now retired, explicitly describes his efforts at discovering God.  In words to this effect, he says he thought God would enter his life, somehow, but didn't. Doesn't sound to the Bear that the sheriff put much time and effort into finding God.

No Country for Old Men fools us into thinking it is about a big, rather standard adventure. Somebody stumbles onto a fortune, and wants to keep it. He turns out to be pretty resourceful, too: clearly a survivor. The hitman who stalks him is relentless and indestructible. He sometimes allows victims to call heads or tails before he kills them. A flip of the coin. Chance.

Only, the apparent protagonist dies off-screen, and we never so much as see his body in the morgue. Likewise his wife (sweet Kelly Macdonald). We only know she's dead because the hitman looks at the soles of his boots, presumably for blood. Woody Harrelson dies after maybe ten minutes screen time. Javier Bardem's homicidal weirdo with the bad haircut gets randomly T-boned at the end, and wanders off with a bone sticking out of his arm.  (Why didn't the Bear get any of these fascinating mad homicidal geniuses to represent? Pretty much a forgettable parade of mopes.)

Long before the end, you've forgotten about the money. The plot - weird homicidal hitman going around killing everybody - just sort of rolls along with a certain momentum until it slows and stops with maybe fifteen minutes of movie left. The evil guy is not brought to justice; the case isn't solved. It's all just futile.

And that's why, ultimately, the Bear didn't care much for it. He gets how a plot can essentially be the movie; or a skeleton to hang themes one; or even a lengthy misdirection while something else is going on.

Fair enough. But where is the inner story in No Country for Old Men? Tommy Lee Jones is a morose old man who recognizes his life is behind him. His life lessons don't really amount to much, since he has no spiritual life. He makes a glum joke or comment; he has an old man's shock at The Way Things Have Gone To Hell in a Hand basket. But even there, another old guy in a wheelchair tells him about a senseless Indian attack in 1909 that killed someone.

Sorry, Tommy, but you don't even get to have an especially bad period to have beat you down so badly. It has always been this way. He's just empty, looking ahead to only more emptiness. He's not sailing to Byzantium at all. He's merely shuffling off this mortal coil with a sour taste in his mouth.

Yeah, maybe for other people, but not for us.

The title is from Yeats' Sailing to Byzantium, which is nearly as depressing as the movie. Technically, it is a competently piece, but not Oscar-worthy.


  1. Owl Says: Consider a moment the real world. Is it not a burning fire, with all the trees ablaze? We tend to like our stories to be stories, with good clear cut moral and ethical directions. But this is only that which we wish things where. Stories tell us how we OUGHT to act and how the world OUGHT to function. But the real world isn't a story, and it is often hard to understand how God is working in it. The forest is on fire, good men fail and fall, evil succeeds and succeeds but is suddenly T-boned. Those who are here to protect us often are not the best and brightest, and our heroes often do not ride off into the sunset but find themselves in a world that they do not comprehend.

    Life is ultimately about finding faith in God and God is often not flashy or showy. He is in the small and quiet.

    Coen Brothers movies are often uncomfortable to watch...because they are both absurd and too real.

    1. Or just bad -or have we forgotten the insipid remake of the great Alec Guinness old Ealing studio comedy?

      I think serious movies where characters have no spiritual dimension are hard to watch precisely because they are not real. No doubt it is faithful to the source material. I haven't read any of him, but I know of Cormac McCarthy. One of my sons read it and said it was depressing and not that good.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. There's always great Hayes Code screwball comedies and other movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood. You can usually find them free somewhere. The Coen brothers, siblings (?) are without a doubt excellent film-makers, and have produced some great movies. This one wasn't one of them. Precisely because both the surface plot and the embedded inner story were unsatisfying.

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2010/10/theodicy-and-no-country-for-old-men.html

      This makes a similar point to mine, but does so better.

    6. Thanks, I found that to be interesting. Recall that I have seen - lived with - worse than the Sheriff, or at least as bad. This is not hypothetical for me. I have gotten to know evil people. I would not even commit details of the cases I have had or been close to to this comment box.

      I don't see how you can have a theodicy, failed or otherwise, without the "theo." The sheriff is simply lost in a world where people do bad things. In other words, I think the essayist gives him too much credit. Come on, I thought God would show up in my later life and he didn't?

      Ultimately, the sheriff is passive on the inside. He is overmatched precisely because a theodicy is lacking. Chighur kills at least one man with a bolt gun like you kill cattle with. His coin flip routine I found clumsy, I went, "Yup, the universe is random according to the Coen (bros?) and bad things happen to good people" More like existentialist fatigue, rather than theodicy fatigue.

      I also found Chighur's commitment to the outcome of his own game grotesque, as if we are supposed to say "Well, he may be a psychopath, but at least he honors the outcome of the coin flip." Real killers don't operate that way. In any case Chighur doesn't even have a stake in the game.

      The one thing that could save the sheriff is the very thing he never really bothered with. Yes, criminal justice can wound your soul. It did mine. What somewhat protected me was that I saw a much bigger picture. Evil placed in context, is understood at least. Defense lawyers probably understand that better than anyone. It was my job to understand murderers, child killers. Even murderers who kill sweet Kelly MacDonald.

      But it was interesting, and thanks for sharing.

  2. Bear, thanks for saving us from movies like this. Here is silver lining way of viewing it:
    Maybe folks desperately seeking something spiritual in their lives will seek God because of nihilistic movies like this. And it gives believers another reason to be thankful for having a faith.

  3. To be SLIGHTLY fair, this is apparently an adaptation of a Cormic McCarthy book and from things I've read (been awhile though) all his books are pretty depressing and nihilistic.

  4. The Road is also terrible (also McCarthy). It's infuriating when people act like nihilism is deep.

  5. Glad to know I don't need to bother watching this.

  6. If it were up to Bear, the Hayes Code would be back in effect. (Except for his own creative work, of course.)

    The Coen Brothers also made The Big Lebowski, which was a better movie by far, not least of which was making fun of German nihilists. They have made a success of defeating audience expectations. There is hardly a stinker in the whole lot of them.

    Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou (one of my favorites, and one of the few movies to highlight George Clooney's comedic chops) and The Man Who Wasn't there seem better to me. I like the Coen Bros. at their tongue is in cheek. Raising Arizona was great, if only because of the line, "Son do you know you have a panty on your head."

    Again, if you defeat audience expectations to the point that the standard crime film plot proves to be unimportant, I get that.

    But then, the movie has to be about something. When the microscope looks at Tommy Lee Jones, what are we looking at in the film? He looks haunted and doomed from the beginning, and the same at the end. He confesses he's not up to it anymore. Blind chance and evil work hand-in-hand, and control everything. Always has.

    The Bear gets it. But a psychological thriller should have, maybe, psychology? A character arc?

  7. Oh, and NOBODY kills Kelly MacDonald when the Bear's around.

  8. I suspect that Javier Bardem's relentless pursuit of the money and absconders thereof was the inspiration for the current Pokemon Go craze.

    I concur with your analysis, Bear. Depressing stuff with not a lick of redemption or blue sky to be found. It left me feeling empty.

  9. I really liked that movie. Yes, depressing as heck. Violence galore. But really good acting and far more to it than you took away. Just my opinion.

    1. Just curious, Elizabeth. What were the instances of good acting in this film. I found it relentlessly soul-less.

      To my mind, every actor's role was, by varying degree, delivered in a demonically deadpan monotone within a narrowly restricted range of human emotion, requiring only a dour cynicism for delivery of every line.

      No faulting your take on it. I'm always interested to know the reasons why someone comes away from a flick with a radically different take then my own.


    2. Not much was required of the actors, in my opinion. Kelly MacDonald is a standout in a pretty bleak field, not that her role was demanding.

  10. @Liam: "Demonically deadpan"? Yeah, I can see why you'd call it that. The script (pretty close to the book) had characters full of your average, run of the mill, somewhat cynical, brooding, or depressed rural Texans. I didn't find that unbelievable in the least. I've never lived in rural Texas but I spent most of my adult life in very rural Montana and Colorado so some of those characters seemed like neighbors of mine. Other than Chigur, thank God! Another character that dominated the movie for me was the landscape of West Texas. Harsh, unforgiving and empty of much life. But I find that appealing and it made me homesick for my former life in the middle of nowhere.

    It's a depressing and very violent story, yes. It's also done by the Coen brothers with their bent. It's not a Catholic movie, not even remotely religious, so I wasn't expecting or even looking for that. Oddly, I'm not a cynical person at all and I generally don't like dark movies and much prefer movies with some sort of redemption in it. But still, I really liked this movie. Go figure.

    I'm a big fan of Tommy Lee and to a lesser extent, Josh Brolin, so I always like watching them.

    That's all I can come up with as to why I did like this movie.

  11. Yes, the shots of desolate Texas were good, as I would expect. Having lived in Texas, I'm not sure how many Texans are in an existential funk :-) My main complaint was that the plot was clearly meaningless. And that's fine, if there is something else going on. The real story was about TLJ.

    But instead of some realization, he is just a lazy man who never got beyond being upset by newspaper stories. I don't find such people interesting. He just figured God would come into his life? I don't even know what the writers were trying to say with that. TLJ should have come to Jesus, and didn't. That's not God's fault.

    And Chighur crossed the line from psychopathic villain to some sort of unstoppable golem who shakes off compound fractures and wanders off to his next murderous adventure.

    And they unforgivably killed sweet Kelly MacDonald. Your Honor, the Prosecution rests.

  12. fandango - There is nothing redeeming for any of the characters in this story. I read a review giving this movie a rating of 8.6 and out of 300 words of glowing praise the word "bleak" was the only clue. It was a sorry waste of two hours of my time. My advice for anyone considering an evening out to see this movie is to find out plenty about the story first. The ending is made up of a large collection of loose ends that go nowhere. This movie goes to great lengths to prove it. Great acting but so what? There is a scene (no spoiler) where a bad guy and a good guy are on either side of a door. There is a huge buildup for this scene only to find out that the bad guy wasn't really there after all. Then there is no explanation for why I am given this visual which is fake. Is this supposed to make me stand in awe of the Coen brothers and their artistic genius? Not happening for me.
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