So once again we have survived.

No Country for Old Men

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.

No Country for Old MenIt’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:

Vern,

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.

Thanks,
Chris.

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)

Llewelyn is alive and on the run, then there’s another chapter that’s not about him, then in the next chapter he’s already dead. I had to flip back and re-read a bunch of shit thinking I missed something. In the movie the scenes are back to back so it feels more natural. It’s unusual but it’s not fucking with you quite as much as the book is.

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.
This entry was posted on Saturday, November 24th, 2007 at 6:33 pm and is filed under Crime, Drama, Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

19 Responses to “No Country for Old Men”

  1. This is a great review of a great movie, and I really like that you take a step back to talk about the response to the ending and final third. Are you planning on seeing and writing about A Serious Man? It’s pretty excellent.

  2. Sheesh, I’m just glad that I wasn’t the only one, who had such big problems with the last act. I just watched it for the first time and…wow, that ending was one of the biggest WTF’s I ever had while watching a movie. I would describe it as “a typical Coen Bros ending gone wrong”. The Coens have the habit of pretty much always end their movie at a seemingly random point, but usually you can say immediately: “Okay, at least they solved the story”. But this time I was seriously pissed off.
    Even now, after your review helped me to put some perspective in it, I’m not 100% satisfied with everything, that comes after the scene with the woman at the pool. Even if it was really Tommy Lee Jones’ story, that is just no excuse to SPOILERSPOILERSPOILERSPOILER kill Brolin off screen! They pretty much just throw away the main story and say: “Oh, btw, the Mexicans got him.” It doesn’t matter if the movie is really about something different, it’s just pretty bad storytelling, if you ask me and I doubt that I can get over that after my next viewing. (And I definitely will watch it again, because it’s 99% awesome and I’m not one of these assholes who declare a movie to suck, because of one lousy percent.)

  3. To me, having Brolin’s death happen offscreen in such an offhanded manner just made it hurt more. If the point of storytelling is to have an impact, then I’d say that’s damn good storytelling.

  4. Nope. Pissing the audience off is easy. Even worse: It took (at least for me) away all possible impact that his death should have! Instead of getting shokced by it, I kinda shrugged it off at first, because I was waiting for a flashback or something like that, that never came. It took me out of the movie, because I suddenly kept searching for the twist ending (Although I should have known that the Coens don’t do these cheap gimmicks.)

  5. I like everything about NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, though I believe it’s overrated. The storytelling choices didn’t bother me at all. However, I was disappointed for the selfish, BADASS CINEMA-related reason that I didn’t get to see an uzi-wielding Mexicans versus Brolin versus cops versus Anton Chigurh shootout. I was breathlessly elated by the shadow with a silenced shotgun chase & gunfight, so my action expectations were understandably elevated nearing the end of the movie. . . which featured no shadow with a shotgun picking off uzi-men. Sigh. Oh, what could have been.

  6. I didn’t feel like anything was missing from the end. If the Coens did their job (which I think they did) in letting you get to know the characters and their world, then you know exactly what happened to Brolin’s character. Personally, I figured it was so horrific that I was glad I didn’t have to see it happen.
    They didn’t spell everything out, but they didn’t have to if you were paying attention.
    I enjoyed the fact that we didn’t get the resolution we wanted, IE: the protagonist (from our point of view) killed the bad guy and got away and lived happily ever after.
    It was minimalist in a way, and a little condescending I guess too, but personally I liked it.
    I need to watch this one again. Good stuff.

  7. The problem is not that it wasn’t a happy ending or that I didn’t get what happened. It was just HOW it happened! We see Brolin talking to the woman at the pool, then it fades to black and the next thing we know is that Tommy Lee Jones arrives and sees the aftermath of the shootout.
    We just spend over 90 minutes with watching how Brolin tries to escape alive from the Mexicans and Chigurh and I don’t have any problem that he didn’t make it, just that this whole thing was completely sidelined, right in its big climax!
    In my opinion you don’t spend so much time on a story, doesn’t matter from whose perspective you tell it, just to end one of the most important parts with: “Oh, by the way, he died.”

  8. First of all CJ, if you’re going to criticize the ending, don’t just dump all your frustrations on the Coen’s. The ending is beat for beat, almost word for word the book. I’m not sure why people seem to always miss that in their rush to complain about the ending.

    Second, having seen the movie multiple times, I do think it plays better each and every time. Knowing how it all works out doesn’t detract from all the great chase scenes and shoot outs, in fact knowing it was all for nothing gives all the nail-biting escapes a really bitter, doomed atmosphere that just heightens the craft of the Coens in creating those scenes.
    I guess if you want to be pissed off and annoyed, that’s your business, but like the review says, after seeing the movie a bunch of times, the ending becomes just another part of the whole, and I honestly can’t imagine the film building to anything else.
    I think that ending it the way they do really underlines just how much the Coens and McCarthy side with the Sherriff and mirror his disgust in the changing world. To show Brolin going out in a hale of gunfire, that would give to much creedence to what it is ultimately a bunch of human cockroaches snuffing each other out. The second Brolin takes the money he’s totally fucked, caught in an unending chain that always ends the same way than restarts itself. The mantra of the book and film seems to me to say that the only sane way to exist in a world where this is possible is to either completely embrace the darkness and conquer it (Chigurgh) or say “Fuck it” and run (Ed Tom Bell).
    Tommy Lee Jones choosing to take himself out of the race is an act of self-preservation, and he’s obviously disgusted and ashamed with himself. Post-Brolin, the film becomes almost unbearably sad as you realize just how little all this shit meant, and it render Kelly McDonald’s scene with Chigurgh almost unbearable to watch because of how pointless her death is going to be, and yet how inescapable it is.

    So…yeah…I’d trade a ‘kewl’ final gunfight for a film that thematically deep.

  9. At first: I think “It was in the book” is a lame excuse. I don’t know if it worked in the book (According to Vern’s review it kinda does), but it doesn’t work in the movie, and this where the responsible of a filmmaker comes into play. I don’t begrudge the Coen’s decision to stay true to the book, but they should have found a way to make it work.
    And I blame the fact that everybody here seems to misunderstand me on the language barrier, but for fucks sake, I don’t want a big action scene or or a satisfying happy ending, just something that works better than: “protagonist talks about beer -> Fade to black -> he is suddenly dead”. We don’t need to see what happens in detail, because we can all figure out what happened and why, but it still feels like something is missing.
    I love the movie and how it turns out to be the story of a man who has seen it all and because of this decides to retire, but this one fade to black just sticks out like the famous sore thumb to me.

  10. I wanted a big action scene.

    This is ‘Merka, after all.

  11. Hey CJ, as just one American with a couple of semesters of German (like 10 years ago) under my belt, allow me to say that you speak English better than most of the people I interact with in my day-to-day life. I don’t think you’re contending with a language barrier here whatsoever.

  12. Ja, CJ talks good.

  13. Is anyone watching FX’s FARGO seeing a hint of Chigurh in Billy Bob Thornton’s character? I see a bit of it, combined with maybe Ledger’s Joker but on a much smaller scale.

  14. I definitely think they were influenced by Chigurh in his scary confrontations with ordinary people such as Colin Hanks when he pulled him over and the guy at the post office when he picked up his package. But of course he’s a different character because he has a sense of humor. He enjoys fucking with people. I also like the implication in the first episode that maybe he’s going off the rails because of his head injury. At least that’s how I read it. He’s a scary guy but the car accident has made him decide to unleash his fury on people he thinks are assholes rather than just sticking to the job.

  15. Makes you wonder what crazy shit Chigurh himself was up to once he escaped his own fender bender.

    I’m really surprised at how taken I was with these first two episodes. I figured it would have been a more direct re-telling of the original movie, right up to the point the big spoiler happens in the first episode.

  16. The way this show has come along has really swept me up. I’ll even go as far as to say I liked it equally if not better than TRUE DETECTIVE. It’s been true to the original movie (and as discussed here, even has elements of other Coen Bros. movies as well) most by keeping people engaged, and throwing in surprises like this past episode.

  17. This second season is impressing the hell out of me, almost to the point where I can say now it’s even with the first. Well worth the wait. Very stiff competition, but I think Bokeem Woodbine’s character will wind up walking away with the whole thing in terms of what Thornton did last year.

  18. Just started on season 1. One episode in and hooked. I made the mistake of comparing character dynamics to the original movie, such as the male Deputy with the pregnant wife as the Marge and Norm subs in switcheroo. That was well and truly thrown out the basement window by the end of the first episode. Was amazed at how much shit hit the fan in an hour of tv. What a great setup. Though it’s safe to say Freeman’s Lester is our Jerry Lundegaard.

    Love the black humor, especially the setup of Lester looking at his poster in the basement “What if you’re right, and they’re wrong?” when he’s being browbeaten by his wife, and what he does with that poster (and the wall behind it) to cover his tracks when the officer turns up. It was a true Coen moment of human desperation and stupidity. I laughed my arse off.

  19. **SPOILERS FOR SOME..COULD GIVE 2 SHITS FOR OTHERS**

    Fargo Season 1 Ep 9 – A Fox, A Rabbit and a Cabbage – Still kinda wowed at how great this episode was, this coming after the previous episodes surprise jump to ‘One year later..’. I love that they gave a large portion of the episode to show us Malvo’s alter ego as a dentist(!) and a golly-gee everyman. The subtle way the dialogue unravelled with his new pal Stephen Root about his brother in witness protection adds to the joy of finding out what Malvo’s up to, his psychotic dedication to finishing a job, and his response in the elevator once the game with Lester resumes. Btw I really dislike this Lester guy. In FARGO at least Macy’s Jerry was somehow sympathetic. This Lester goes way overboard and seems unredeemable so far. I actually want Malvo to finish him off.

    On the humor – funniest scene and dialogue in this episode, the two feds are lying on the floor of the filing room when the senior agent comes to the counter and sees no one there. The feds pop up, one at a time, the agent asks dryly “You got a clown car down there?”

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