No Country or No Old Men? Pick’ em
December 21, 2007
No Country for Old Men is probably the best movie you will see this year; it is also the most unsatisfying. The Coen brothers have always been praised for their artistry and technical brilliance, but No Country is a significant leap forward. Earlier Coen brothers’ films have dealt with similar themes (Miller’s Crossing, for example, or Fargo, which had heretofore been their most highly praised film), but none of them, not even Blood Simple, the first stitching of the thread, have anticipated No Country. The only thing simple or easy about blood in this movie is the cool ease with which Javier Bardem dispenses with his villains. His bullets and air-capsules are as cold and terrifying as the Coen brother’s cinematography and mis-en-scene.
This review will be a positive one, if only because I promised the eyebiter that we could write dueling reviews. But any honest review of this movie should itself be a dual or dueling one, all reviews of No Country for Old Men should take on the different reactions the movie elicits without hiding behind a veil of technical artistry. I’ve thought more and more about the movie since I left the theater, and not only because I knew that I would have to collect my thoughts in code. And in that time everything has faded (Bardem’s killer is just too cinematic to be horrifying when you leave the theater) except my sense of confusion. No Country for Old Men was a movie. Something to be seen and admired, something even to be studied. But beyond that? Like David Byrne suggested, I ask myself, “Well, how did I get here?”
No Country for Old Men is first and foremost a movie about storytelling. The first ten minutes of the movie play with the idea of perspective.The movie is introduced with a voice-over by Tommy Lee Jones that summarizes something. It perhaps describes the whole movie, or perhaps only the pre-history. Either way, by the time the movie proper begins, the the story is already in the middle. Javier Bardem is being arrested by the police; what has he done? A dramatic, horrific shootout has occurred, yet we only see the bloody stillness. There are two minor characters who look alike, two deputies, such as to introduce the possibility of confusion and flashback, before Tommy Lee sets the story straight, coolly describing the events so far. “That’s very linear of you,” the deputy tells him, and Tommy Lee tells him that when you get to his age you prefer things that way. Linear storytelling; no jumping through time, playing with narrative forms. Tommy Lee Jones is not a narrator like Sam Elliot in The Big Lebowski, inserting himself into the story. The movie is a defense of old-fashioned, A-Z film-making, while also offering a corrective. Dramatic, important moments are told off camera, elided in a sense. It’s direct storytelling, but there’s nothing cut and dry about it. The Coen brothers might have matured into more classical film-making, but they haven’t abandoned everything that made them who they were.
The movie’s biggest flaw is that it is soulless. There are lots of themes throughout (cultural change, honour, and family), but it’s hard to pin the movie down to any one thing, or even anything at all. The movie seems to reject the symbolic and ideas of higher interpretation. Tommy Lee Jones offers up his dreams to be analyzed, but the dreams themselves are hollow and, like he’s said, only of interest to the dreamer. Javier Bardem has a higher code but it’s impossible to tell what that may be except his word, e.g. the word. Nothing beyond the literal. Yet material wants (money, drugs) are also of no interest to him. Perhaps symbolism is a subset of the movie’s theme of storytelling. It rejects interpretation at the same time that it demands it. And therein the confusion.
I am haunted by the movie’s questions (or, perhaps the question of questionicity), if not its killer. It will almost certainly be nominated for best picture, and it has a great chance of winning. But I do not know if i ever want to see the movie again. At the same time, I cannot resist.