No Country for Old Men Disappoints
December 21, 2007
NOTE: This review is reprinted with the permission of The Furious Romantic, who happens to live in the same brain as Ibiteyoureyes. For a “dueling review” see dailysalad’s post No Country or No Old Men? Pick ‘Em.
* * *
I had been trying to think of a good way to start off a review of No Country for Old Men, and today I found one, courtesy of Peter Travers from Rolling Stone. Says Mr. Travers:
“Misguided souls will tell you that No Country for Old Men is out for blood, focused on vengeance and unconcerned with the larger world outside a standard-issue suspense plot. Those people, of course, are deaf, dumb, and blind to anything that isn’t spelled out between commercials on dying TV networks. Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel is an indisputably great movie, at this point the year’s very best. [It is] a literate meditation (scary words for the Transformers crowd) on America’s bloodlust for the easy fix. It’s also as entertaining as hell, which tends to rile up elitists.”
Despite having what Mr. Travers might call a “more or less well-guided soul,” I was fairly pissed off by his use of such fightin’ words as “deaf, dumb, and blind.” I was greatly pissed off by the last sentence of the previous excerpt: “It’s also entertaining as hell, which tends to rile up elitists.” While Mr. Travers is entitled to his opinion, there are a few problems with taking a swipe at both the “misguided souls” of the film watching community and the “elitists” of the film watching community…in the span of a few sentences.
- It sort of implies that only a small group of really special people (super-elitists with well-guided souls?), led by Mr. Travers himself, can truly appreciate this movie.
- It puts the writer in the difficult position of defending an indefensible point (an opinion) from two fronts: The Stoopids is gonna yell at you in between commercials on their dying TV networks, and the Snark-Attackers are going to band together at the local bar to get drunk and skewer you…in between being clever and complaining about society and the misfortunes of their lives…before then setting off to the local indie theater to watch unentertaining
moviesfilms! full of pauses and poetry.
It’s a good thing Peter Travers is completely wrong when he says that No Country for Old Men is an indisputably great movie. I dispute, home skillet. I dispute. No Country for Old Men is a good, but ultimately disappointing, movie.
Let’s get the big positives out of the way, quick and dirty like:
- Superb acting. Personally, I think Josh Brolin stole the No Country show and took its cherry. There’s no minimizing Javier Bardem’s performance, or Tommy Lee Jones’ either – hell, everyone was very good – but for me Brolin carried the film. This actually ended up causing some problems for the story as a whole, but more on that later.
- Beautiful cinematography and good, tight micro editing. That’s pretty self-explanatory. The shots themselves are often beautiful, and sometimes stunning. Each individual scene, despite any and all gore, is a hell of a lot better than anything you’ll see in most other films.
- The exceptional sound design strengthens and supports both of these positives to the point that some scenes achieve something very close to cinematic perfection.
That being said…
The writing, and the larger edits, are ultimately frustrating – so much so that they really bring the film down. If the remainder of No Country shared the quality and focus displayed by its “approximate middle,” I would join Peter Travers in praising the film as a whole. But it doesn’t. And it sucks that it doesn’t because I really want to like this film.
Very early on in my viewing of No Country for Old Men, I got nervous about the impending experience of said “film as a whole.” The beautiful pictures were already there, some smart but simple, understated dialogue had already come and gone, the lead actors were already cooking, but…everything seemed to be moving a few steps too slow. This left me with much more to be thankful for than wary of, so I attributed my impatience to a difference in personal taste between myself and the filmmakers, and I waited.
And things got better. They particularly got better when Brolin and/or Bardem were on screen, which I understand is largely…the point. When these men were not on screen, however, not even the spectacular acting chops of Tommy Lee Jones could keep the adjoining scenes of the film at the level of quality maintained while Brolin and Bardem were there. Brolin and Bardem, Attorneys at Law.
What so many people do not seem to understand about storytelling or filmmaking (super soul-guide Peter Travers included) is that the delicate relationship between character and story manifests itself (whether it’s good or bad, intact or broken) through action and, to a certain degree, circumstance. To be fair, many writers and/or filmmakers do understand this phenomenon, and yet still the majority take it for granted. To be more specific…
- The scenes between Brolin’s character and Kelly Macdonald’s (playing his wife) are very good. More importantly, they maintain, and even help to further, the quality exhibited while Brolin is on screen alone, while Bardem is on screen alone, or when the two are “together.”
- Many of the scenes between Bardem’s Anton Chigurh and any of a number of minor characters are very good. More importantly, they maintain, and even help to further, the quality exhibited while Brolin…same shit.
- The majority of the remaining scenes drag the film down all the way from “Best Picture” to “Frustrating Good Picture.” Sorry, but, they do.
Obviously, this third point requires some flesh.
The easiest place to start is with the contributions of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones, to the story and film at large. As I have mentioned, Tommy Lee Jones did a great job in this role. If he hadn’t, the deficiencies exhibited by his character’s part in the “grand scheme of things” would have been much more discernible than they end up being. I would even go so far as to say that no actor was more well-suited to the role of Ed Tom Bell than Mr. Jones. In addition to deserving a whole mess of credit for the cinematography, editing, and the performances of their cast, credit should also be given to the Coen brothers for assembling and maximizing that cast. It’s pretty damn impressive.
So what’s my problem with Ed Tom Bell? Surely it must be the way his role plays out in the final half hour of the movie. Well…not exactly. Sort of, but not exactly.
The problem is that, by the time the film ends, something should have happened between his character and the story at large that doesn’t. No Country for Old Men suffers greatly from the distance (in active and circumstantial terms) between Ed Tom Bell and his part of the story, and the parts of the story that play out between Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss, Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, and Fate.
This is what is wrong with the last half hour of the film (and many other scattered scenes). This is why the “misguided souls” and the “elitists” alike may have trouble liking No Country for Old Men. Something important is missing from this film.
Now, someone might read what I just wrote and say: “You don’t get it. The film is supposed to be understated. It’s supposed to be disconcerting. It’s a presentation of action and circumstance. The Coens know what they’re doing. Film and story conventions are not entirely at play here. This is No Film for Easy Convention.”
And honestly, I would listen to the arguments of such a person, because there’s a degree of truth in these observations. But I haven’t yet stated in exact terms what I believe is missing from No Country.
For the sake of clarity (and at the slight cost of deviation) I should admit that I had a little more help with forming my opinions on this film than that which I received from Peter Travers. I also watched Fargo last week for the first time in years. And while I normally try to abstain between forming too many comparisons between an author or filmmaker’s previous work and their current work…there’s one particular area in which Fargo shines that helps to illustrate exactly what is missing from No Country.
In a word: characterization. In terms of what’s actually at play in the film, Fargo is about as understated as No Country. It’s similarly disconcerting. But the ways in which it plays with convention, and especially the ways in which action and circumstance are explored in Fargo, are at once more responsible and more effective than the ways in which No Country goes about attempting these same things.
It shouldn’t come as much of a shock at this point, but I have yet to say it outright: the fault is mostly with the writing. As I understand it, No Country is a faithful adaptation to the novel upon which it is based. Whether the deficiencies that I have been discussing here are a natural result of the book-to-film adaptation process, or just indicative of deficiencies in the source material provided by the novel, is an observation I’ll leave to someone who has read the book. But, regardless, having made Fargo, shouldn’t the Coen’s have known better? Shouldn’t they have fixed this?
To delve a little into specifics, think about what I said about the distance between Ed Tom Bell and his story, and the separate but intersecting stories of Chigurh and Moss. Then think about the separate but intersection stories of the characters in Fargo. How, as viewers, do we receive these stories? How do we get to know these characters?
Obviously, we’re talking about a film, so we get to know the characters by watching them, by observing their actions and contemplating their circumstances. But what does it mean to know a character? When you’re talking film, and also when you’re talking just “plain old story,” you can say that you know a character when you have observed them – to the point that you either know or can guess their past deeds, as well as their current motivations. Of course, many stories and films capitalize on this relationship by introducing twists and turns into the process. Even when you allow for this, though, it nonetheless stands that the only way to truly experience a film is through interaction. The interaction between characters, as well as between characters and less tangible (or less easy-to-capture) elements of story (such as an environment or social climate or whatever), engenders a subsequent interaction between the audience and the artwork itself.
Again, many of the scenes in No Country do a spectacular job of fostering this interactivity. So too do almost all of the scenes in Fargo. But, in reference to No Country, when you have many scenes that set a high bar and more than a few others that knock that bar down to the ground (or remove it entirely for minutes at a time!) you end up with scores of disappointed cinephiles. Or maybe you just end up with one disappointed cinephile…
If you’ve seen Fargo, think about how much you’re actually told about the characters in the film – even the minor characters. The answer is very little, but no sooner does the story start than you realize (hopefully) that you don’t have to know much. It all comes out in what Character A says or does to Character B, despite the understatement and the sometimes foggy motivations, and so on, and so forth. Again…this is done very well in No Country when Josh Brolin or Javier Bardem is on the screen.
But Tommy Lee Jones’ character? He mostly just talks, and often in terms close in proximity to the “understated themes” of the film, but far away from the action and the circumstances that are establishing those themes, in real and active terms, when he’s off the screen. He never gets very close, physically, with a few notable exceptions, to the other main players in the film. He doesn’t talk to them. He’s there, largely, to talk to us. And it didn’t seem to matter much to the Coen’s, or to Cormac McCarthy, or whoever, which minor characters serves, from Tommy Lee scene to Tommy Lee scene, as a sounding board to the Ed Tom Bell character.
This represents a big problem for me. Never was this tendency more blatant and disappointing than it was in the film’s later scenes. But the problem pops up early and often anyway. With few exceptions, whenever Brolin or Bardem were offscreen (and maybe a few times when they were on it as well) the remaining characters that we are left with, instead of strengthening the spaces between and around the film’s great lead performances, often simply take up time and space in order to lazily provide a little exposition or explanation. Most often, this exposition came in the form of either death or a monologue. What’s ironic about the comments made by Peter Travers is their backwards accuracy. The story told by No Country for Old Men suffers from a sort of identity crisis.
The film disappointed me not because I didn’t understand it, or because it’s too entertaining, or any crap like that. It isn’t entertaining enough. It isn’t smart enough. It’s stuck squarely in between these territories, along with Peter Travers.
The film doesn’t get itself. Fargo is full of a lot of the same themes as No Country, and as a film it works brilliantly because everything that is understated can be traced and understood by listening to what the characters say and do to one another – and how they say and do it. No Country for Old Men show only flashes of this sort of brilliance, because, more often than not, everything that is understated needs to be explained and propped up by the characters that we encounter in between and around the real story of the film, that which moves and speaks to us, no matter how understated or unpleasant or violent it may be, that which involves Moss and Chigurh.
It’s true that a lot of this could have been fixed by fixing the ending. But that ending is more of an indication of a larger problem with No Country than it is the problem itself. Too much is lacking. And it’s too bad. Those younger men are damned interesting.