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No Country for Old Men

The other day I watched the Coen brothers' latest film, No Country for Old Men, which is based of the novel by Cormac McCarthy, and is a film that's gotten a lot of good things said about it. For many, it seemed, it was a return to form for the Coen brothers.

I suppose I'll come down to the line of disagreeing, but not because I think the film is bad, but rather because the end misses its thematic mark, and that sense of missing a mark has been my sense with the Coens for a while now. In case you've not heard about the film, it's centred around Llewelyn Moss, played by Josh Brolin, and whose problems begin when he comes across a drug deal gone bad. Amongst the dead and dying, he finds a suitcase full of money and takes it, making the one mistake of returning later to give water to a dying man, which ends up with him being found. Before you reach the film, you'll be sold on the fact that Tommy Lee Jones' character, Ed, is at the centre of the film, but he's not, really, and that's both the film's strength and flaw in its thematic conversation. No Country for Old Men has a thematic concern that is pretty much summed up in the title: that there is no place for old men in this new world, that they are being minimised by their fading physical attributes, and that in the fights that take place between young men, they are unable to compete. Lee's Ed, therefore, while intelligent and dogged in his unravelling of the drug deal, Llewelyn's place in it, and how dangerous Anton (played by Javier Barden) is, is never able to engage in the conflict of the book. Whenever Anton is given a confrontation that he must overcome, it is one that arises from Llewelyn, for he, unlike Ed, is his physical counter part, a man in a similar age bracket who can compete against him.

For the most part, that works fine. Brolin does a fine job as the down to earth, take no shit hunter/cowboy, though his conflict against Barden's killer is diminished somewhat by the fact that Anton is such a cartoon character that he's more unintentionally humouress than chilling. But still, the film isn't bad: the Coen's know how to put together a solid film, and the chase the two are engaged in is one that carries you through the film nicely. It is, however, with a quarter of the film left, and with Llewelyn's death, that the film falls back onto its thematic content to carry it, and it's there that the whole thing falls apart. It is at this stage that you realise that Jones' character really hasn't spent that much time on the screen, and that his top billing is somewhat unearned in terms of screen time; but the real problem is that by having him as such a diminished presence, when it comes time to give the film its weight and purpose, there's no resonance, because Ed is very much a periphery character, and his push in the final quarter to the centre of the film is an awkward one, and results in the introduction of a disable brother and retirement that feels as if it has come out of nowhere, and leaves the viewer feeling as if he or she missed a whole section of the film.

It's a question of weighting, in the end. For such a theme to be successful, then more time has to be spent with the character that it hinges on, and at the end of the film, where Ed describes the dream of his father--a strange moment where he seems to imply that he'd like nothing better if Dad could come back, hold him, read him a bedtime fable and tell him his important to the world--there's been no investment made by either the film makers or the audience for the theme to actually work.


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Apr. 29th, 2008 04:18 pm (UTC)
I pretty much thought the same. Very underwhelmed, as nicely shot as the film was.
Apr. 30th, 2008 12:03 am (UTC)
i enjoyed it, i think, for the most part--it was just that by the end i felt unsatisfied.
Apr. 29th, 2008 11:56 pm (UTC)
That's only one reason to give the film a bad mark, imo. It was a weak screenplay, I thought, and a relatively week novel.
Apr. 30th, 2008 12:04 am (UTC)
i haven't read the novel, but i wondered if it suffered from the same issue?
Apr. 30th, 2008 12:31 am (UTC)
I didn't analyze it in those terms, but both novel and movie played ;like pastiches of a Cormac McCaarthy joint, and the epiphany felt tacked on. I found Woody Harrelson character to serve no purpose, to be wholly inessential, and the entire picture/novel seemed founded on a ludicrous circumstance, that Moss would return to the desert knowing the man he's bringing water to is surely dead. The whole thing felt fake.
Apr. 30th, 2008 12:36 am (UTC)
yeah, i didn't much buy the return to the desert thing either. tho i was okay with woody harrelson's character--though i didn't think they used him at all to a point that'd be fulfilling, so i can't say i disagree with you.

i was considering reading the novel to see if it did much different. worth bothering with?
Apr. 30th, 2008 01:26 am (UTC)
I don't think so. Other McCarthy like Suttree and The Orchard Keeper, if you haven't read them, are far more rewarding...as is Blood Meridian, though I don't believe that one ages well. At heart it's a simple book and a lot of elegant flash and dazzle.

Edited at 2008-04-30 01:26 am (UTC)
Apr. 30th, 2008 02:35 am (UTC)
yeah, i've read BLOOD MERIDIAN, which i liked, but mostly for the prose and energy. it doesn't do much for me beyond that. haven't read the other two, so i'll try them before i try NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, since, well, i know what happens in that anyhow.
Apr. 30th, 2008 02:58 am (UTC)
Read Suttree, if you can read just one...
Apr. 30th, 2008 04:57 am (UTC)
cool. thanks.
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Apr. 30th, 2008 05:26 am (UTC)
i might've missed it. themes tend to work for some and work for not--but i reckon there was a masculinity theme running through there, even with the conservatism (which i'll agree with you on, there).

the ommissions are interesting, though. similarly i didn't think that moss' sell out of carla jean was that much of a sell out in the film--but rather picking it up for a revenge styled narrative. sounds like it might play out somewhat differently in the book, though.

oh, and on that point of ambiguous editing, i have to agree. i wasn't quite sure what they were trying to do there, but it didn't work. it could have worked, but i think it would have had to be played different, and for ed to have more time in the film.

and i just found out i got no credit on my phone and need to reply to a student. awesome.
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Apr. 30th, 2008 04:02 pm (UTC)
well, hey, andy, that sounds like a fab idea :)
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