A guide for enthusiasts of Badass Cinema
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is one of those movies that’s so quiet it can be uncomfortable to watch with an audience. Alot of scenes all you hear is the wind blowing lightly over the wide open Texas plains, or the cars driving past outside a motel room, along with every squirm, every sigh, every shoulder crack in the theater. At the end when I saw the music credit for Carter Burwell I honestly couldn’t for the life of me remember any point in the movie where there was music.
So it’s clearly a little arty, it’s not like anybody’s gonna mistake this for THE MUMMY RETURNS. Or for THE FRENCH CONNECTION for that matter. It requires a little patience. But there’s so much about it that’s so fuckin good that it will win over all kinds of people from all walks of life. At first.
It’s a movie full of great performances and great characters. James Brolin’s boy Josh has a career-catapulting role as Llewelyn Moss, Vietnam vet who’s out hunting when he stumbles across the aftermath of a drug deal gone real bad, and decides to take home a briefcase of money as a souvenir. Javier Bardem, with his worst haircut since PERDITA DURANGO, plays Anton Chigurh, an enforcer who’s gone crazy enough to kill pretty much anybody who sees him along the way while spouting philosophy to justify his actions. And Tommy Lee Jones, in another topnotch quiet old lovable sadsack performance like he’s been doing lately, is the disillusioned Sheriff Bell who follows the trail.
And it’s a movie with alot of great talking, a script that pays careful attention to the interesting ways different people put words together. But this time credit doesn’t go as much to Joel and Ethan Coen, the brothers out of Minnesota who made the movie, as to Cormac McCarthy, who wrote the book that way already. Alot of the dialogue is lifted straight out of the book so it has alot of classic lines. I was glad they kept my favorite: Llewelyn’s wife asks him where he got that gun and he says “At the gettin’ place.”
This is a jawdroppingly awesome piece of filmatism, but is it a piece of Badass Cinema? This is a question not relevant to most reviewers but since everybody else has already written ten books worth about every other angle I might as well focus on this one.
Let me show you part of an email I got this week:
Maybe you can help me on this one. See, last night, my girlfriend and I went to see No Country For Old Men. Both of us are fans of the Coen Bros. and of Badassery in general, so we were pretty pumped… So here’s the conundrum: We both walked out of that movie pissed off and thinking that it really sucked big donkey balls…
Throughout the first two thirds or so of the movie, we were onboard. It was slow-paced but felt like a tension was building which would eventually pay off when everything tied together in the end. Then, something happened. That something is that either the Coen Brothers forgot to make about 30 minutes worth of the movie or that the theater forgot to include a reel or, most likely, the movie fell flat on its face with absolutely no resolution to any of the story lines. I mean, seriously, the main characters just sort of disappear. After spending an hour and a half or so watching this cat and mouse game play out between Brolin’s character and the psychopath who wants his money back, we get treated to a disconnected scene of Tommy Lee Jones’s character now being retired and bam! credits. What the fuck?!?
Then the crowd applauded and [REDACTED] and I just stared at each other like, “did we miss something?”… So, I implore you, if/when you’ve seen No Country For Old Men, either (a) tell me that you agree that it fell apart and those douchebags in the theater in Hollywood were clapping because they feel like if they don’t understand what the fuck just happened it must be good so they better applaud so as not to look stupid or (b) tell me what it was that she and I missed, maybe a subtle line or scene, maybe something major that will make me feel stupid for not catching… but, SOMETHING that makes this film something other than a two hour wank. OR (C) write a review about it (best option).
I need help, less I lose faith in films for about the fifteenth time this year.
I knew of at least two other people who had this problem with the movie. The first was a guy in the back of the theater when I saw it who, when the credits rolled, said “That’s it? I don’t get it.” You could hear it all throughout the theater so everybody laughed and then he said, “What? I don’t get it!”
The second was another Ain’t It Cool reviewer, the guy called Massawyrm. He infamously panned the movie for not giving the audience what you usually get in this type of story. He blamed the Coens’ “experimental streak” and if that’s the case then the experiment was to try to measure human tolerance for a faithful cinematic translation of a Cormac McCarthy book. That dude already did it in his book and the part that flipped Massawyrm’s wig in the movie is actually even stranger in the book because
TOP SECRET SPOILER SECTION (highlight)
Having seen it now I think actually the guy in the back of the theater has the more legitimate gripe. The end of the movie seems pretty abrupt, it is definitely jarring if you don’t know what’s up. There are certain things you instinctively expect a story like this to resolve, but this one has a different agenda. It’s telling you a different story than you thought it was and you might not realize this until the credits roll.
In the book they keep going back to Bell’s point of view, like that narration he has at the beginning of the movie, so it’s not a surprise that it’s his story, that’s sort of the idea from the beginning. I still thought that one little trick was jarring, but I also thought, well, it’s a book. What do you expect. You know how books are. In the movie, the Coens do such a good job of making it a great fucking thriller, that it’s even crueler when it pulls the carpet out from underneath your feet. Personally I think that’s kind of cool that they fuck with the audience that way but I can see how it would be fingernails on a chalkboard to some people.
The other thing is that with a book you’re prepared because you’re holding the book in your hands, you’re not blind, you know you’re on the last page so you’re at the end. Or if you are blind and you’re reading a braille book you still can feel that you are at the end of the book.
I remember when I read the book I Am Legend I got to this part where something huge happened and I thought holy shit, what’s gonna happen now? And I turned the page to the next chapter only to realize there is no next chapter, there’s some other unrelated short story in the back of the book. It felt like when you step off a curb or a step and for some reason the drop is bigger than you were thinking it was and you lose your balance. It was a great ending but I wasn’t mentally prepared for it to be the ending, I lost my balance.
But at least with that I could flip back a couple pages and re-read it with that in mind. With a movie in a movie theater if it ends when you’re expecting more it must be pretty disorienting.
So the temptation I guess is for people who liked that to say people who didn’t are stupid and for people who didn’t like it to say that people who did like it are just pretending they did to seem smart. That’s pretty much what Massawyrm did. I would say that it’s true, stupid people wouldn’t like this movie, but plenty of smart people wouldn’t either. I have sympathy because if I hadn’t read the book I bet it would’ve thrown me too. It’s fair to expect a thriller because parts of the movie would fit in the best thriller you’ve ever seen. There are two extended chase sequences that I already know are for the ages and I just saw the movie a few days ago. Most movies are not this intense, it feels like bullets are whizzing over your head for real. And at least a couple scenes, including the first one, are just like scenes in BLOOD SIMPLE. So it’s not stupid to wish for a perfect thrill ride like that. I’ve seen people saying “don’t go to a Coen Brothers movie expecting DIE HARD” but how about going to a Coen brothers movie expecting BLOOD SIMPLE?
You know what? I can’t lie. If there was no book and this was just a crime thriller and wasn’t all contemplative and shit, I might’ve liked it just as much. And maybe it doesn’t matter that there’s a book. I bet if it was the ’70s or if it was somebody not as good as the Coen Brothers they would’ve hedged their bets and Hollywooded it up with some more traditional resolution of the stolen drug money caper. But I knew the Coens wouldn’t do that. It’s called NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and it’s not talking about stealing Waylon Jennings records from the retirement home. It’s talking about Sheriff Bell coming to terms with his obsolescence in today’s violent world. Not exactly high concept. But worth making a movie about.
So my answer to Chris was that this is not exactly Badass Cinema. Somebody might say it’s an arthouse approach to Badass Cinema, like POINT BLANK, and since POINT BLANK is one of the all time greats of Badass Cinema that means you can be arthouse without devaluing the Badass. True enough, but POINT BLANK’s badass credentials are built around a lead played by Lee God Damn Marvin, a character who kicks down doors, fires into empty beds, wants his money back. The most badass character in NO COUNTRY is the villain. And yes, Llewelyn certainly pulls enough buckshot out of his shoulder to qualify. He even has the Vietnam vet background of many action heroes. But that “That’s it? I don’t get it” ending tells us that it’s Bell’s story, and Bell may be a man’s man but he’s not a badass, and has no interest in being one. He really would rather be retired, eating at cafes, putting on his reading glasses, “listening to old timers.” And not in a Billy Jack or Steven Seagal way where he is a pacifist but he’s still gonna kick you in the face and throw you through a window. This story is serious about it.
That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the movie, it just means to re-adjust your expectations if somebody told you that’s what it was. I think even some people let down by the end will go away kind of liking it because it’s such a highly concentrated dose of pure filmatism. Not just the tense scenes but all the quiet, moody ones. Llewelyn coming across the dead bodies and piecing together what happened, later coming back guiltily to bring water to the lone survivor. Bell and deputy examining the scene later, discussing the dead dog, the “second fracas.” The powerful score by Carter Burwell, I can’t wait to listen to it again and really study it. (Just kidding, I think he formatted the CD of his score wrong and they thought it was supposed to blank so that’s what they used.)
If nothing else NO COUNTRY will be remembered for having a classic villain. If I remember right there’s only one person in the movie who ever saw him without dying. Another guy asks him if he’s gonna kill him and Chighur says, “It depends. Do you see me?” I thought of him as an angel of death. Bell describes him as a “ghost.” And Chris told me in a later email that at one point when something happens to Chighur somebody in his theater said “How you gonna kill death?”
Like the book, the movie doesn’t skimp on the violence, and that’s probaly where the badass confusion comes in. There’s more than one graphic scene of self-bullet wound surgery. These are some tough dudes and they’re not gonna cry about it, but it’s graphic enough that you know when somebody gets tagged it has consequences, like when John McClane steps across glass as opposed to when he falls of an F-35 jet. One of many great scenes is when Chigurh makes a molotov cocktail out of a car to cause a distraction as he storms into the back of a pharmacy to steal what he’ll need to turn his hotel room into the ER. That’s taking it one step further than Rambo. Chigurh has a higher standard of health care than Rambo. By the way wouldn’t it be weird if they did CHIGURH: NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN PART 2 and he’s working for the government now to save some hostages? I’ll answer for you, that would be weird.
The thing is, I think ultimately “the ending” of this one will not be the issue. Once a movie is around for a while and you’ve had a chance to think about it and to see it more than once it stops being about the plot the way it unfolded for you the first time you watched it and starts being about the movie as a whole. I would bet that some people who didn’t like the way it turned out the first time will later go back to it and, with pre-knowledge of what’s gonna happen, appreciate more how it comes together. The way Llewelyn comes across these dead drug dealers, not ever seeing what happened to them, and later the Sherriff (and the audience) find him the same way. There’s some kind of symmetry to it. It’s not just a random sucker punch. It just seems like one.
This fall, if you see only one contemplative literary adaptation with some elements of Badass Cinema that seems like a random sucker punch but actually has some symmetry to it in retrospect, see NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.