No Country for Old Men — 10 Years Later

No Country for Old Men turns ten this year. The Coens’ faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s best known (though not necessarily best) novel earned four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director(s), Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem), and Best Adapted Screenplay. It has a 93% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and a 91 score at the stingier Metacritic. Everyone (almost) loves this movie. Of the few who don’t love it, almost all respect it. So why can’t I go with the flow? And will a decade’s worth of water under the bridge make it easier to capitulate to critical consensus?

With the notable exception of Terence Malick, the Coens are the directors I’ve tried the most to appreciate without much success. It’s not impossible to talk yourself into liking something you didn’t at first glance, but it is possible.

What I Said Then

(Excerpts from TIFF 2007 review posted at Jeffrey Overstreet’s Looking Closer Journal.)

There is a polished, poetic plainness to some of Cormac McCarthy’s prose in which his admirers might hear echoes of Flannery O’Connor but which usually leaves me exasperated. At its best, the prose can take on the quality of found poetry, intimating at deep truths that inform surface reality and invigorating tired clichés by reminding us of the seeds of truth from which they sprung before withering. At its worst, it can sound like MFA writing — trying a bit too hard to be clever without appearing to be and never more than a page away from some “look at me, I’m writing” moment. Certainly there are passages in “No Country for Old Men” where McCarthy nails with ease the regional plainspoken quality that archetypally defines both the American cowboy and aged veteran who is experienced enough to be wise but not yet so old as to be worn out. At other times, though, he will go to the well once too often, and grate with yet another “I won’t talk about that” to denote a deep hurt or a bantering repetition to underline for the novice reader that, despite the plainness of the dialogue, the idea is important:

“What are you going to do about that? Nothing. That’s what you are going to do.”

“He realized that they must think that he thought that they thought that he thought they [fill in the blank]. He thought about that.”

These are not verbatim quotes, but they are examples of the sorts of stylistic moves that apparently give McCarthy fans a buzz if not an outright high.

The line between Russian formalist defamiliarization and Seinfeldian banality may not be that thick to begin with, but I like to know which side of it I’m on if I’m going to invest the time and effort to take a novel seriously. And “No Country for Old Men” wants so very desperately, a little too desperately, to be taken seriously. McCarthy’s facility with words goes a long way towards making that preening go down easy, but every now and then (such as with a killer asking “what’s the most you ever won on the flip of a coin?” or in a conflict with a hotel clerk who doesn’t understand the request for an exact price beyond “$14 plus tax”) the author becomes a little too visible in his work for my taste.

One could, I think, rewrite the first two paragraphs of this review by crossing out “Cormac McCarthy” and inserting “the Coen brothers” and substituting “Fargo” (or “O Brother, Where Art Thou”) for “No Country for Old Men.” There is an overly mannered naturalism in these films that borders on (or immigrates to) caricature under the guise of local color. Thus, while some fans of McCarthy no doubt groaned when they heard the Coen brothers were adapting his novel to the big screen, my own response, while not that of an enthusiastic fan of either the source material or the auteurs’ body of work, was “Yes, of course; this makes perfect sense.” Not that I didn’t have worries. Would Tommy Lee Jones’s confident drawl and persona turn the self-effacing Sherriff Bell into a smug, know-it-all in the model of Lieutenant Gerard? Did the casting of Javier Bardeem as Chigurh indicate the film was going to treat the too-psychotic-to-be-interesting killer into a major player in an ensemble piece rather than an antagonist who drives what is essentially a “Terminator” plot?

What I Say Now

The first question for a revisit is, “Has my overall estimation of the film changed?” Not really. Ten years ago, I gave it a “B,” and I still feel it is a quality film for which I can’t quite generate enthusiasm. The second question is , “Do I see anything in the film that helps me better understand or explain my response?” If the movie hasn’t changed much in ten years, I certainly have.

Let me start with one way in which the movie is better than I remembered. In hindsight, it is much, much clearer that this is Sheriff Bell’s (Tommy Lee Jones) story, rather than Llewelyn Moss’s (Josh Brolin). One of the conceits of the novel is that it shifts perspectives and voices. Some of this is carried over to the film, particularly in the introductory voice-over, but some (including the final speech) gets presented as dialogue rather than narration. I think for a viewer unfamiliar with the book, the narrative pattern of the film is “A” story and “B” story, so it is easy to misread Moss as the protagonist. When he dies prematurely, it is not exactly a Psycho-like twist, but it feels more like that in the film than in the novel, where the narrative shifts are more frequent and pointed throughout than they are in the film.

Freed of the expectation that Moss be the protagonist, we may find it a little easier on subsequent viewings to see him less as an innocent man caught up in circumstances (for whom we are rooting) and more as a flawed agent of his own demise. In an early scene, a dying drug smuggler asks for water. Moss has none. He then asks Moss to close the door so that he might die of thirst or from bleeding out rather than being attacked by wolves. Moss walks away leaving the door open. Perhaps there really are no wolves, but it is a moment of casual, pointless cruelty that signals early in the film that Moss isn’t so much Chigurh’s opposite as his slightly less devolved reflection.

Bell’s opening speech underlines this central theme: “You can’t help but compare yourself to the old times.” The film’s and novel’s title comes from the assertion that the world has changed and that lawmakers (and criminals) are different not just by degrees but in essence.

The two most notable critics of No Country for Old Men were probably Stephen Hunter (Washington Post) and Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago Reader). Hunter criticizes the film for being all plot/chase and no character development. (I’ll address that in this essay’s final section.) Rosenbaum calls the film “hypocritical,” seemingly alluding to the way the film traffics in and celebrates violence while “eliding” its consequences and even some of the more emotionally devastating acts themselves. I’m not sure I want to go all the way to “hypocritical” (‘which I tend to think assumes something about artists’ good faith), but certainly one can draw a fairly straight line from Hannibal Lecter to Chigurgh (as Rosenbaum does in his lengthier piece) and extrapolate that on down the line to Ledger’s Joker and Chigurh 2.0 in Sicario. The cultural coolness of sociopaths has trickled down into television, making it a staple of our media diet rather than an anomaly. While the blame for this can’t all be laid at No Country’s feet, the film did participate in its development.

The Last Word

Hunter’s claim that No Country for Old Men is without character development gets closer to my problem with the film than does Rosenbaum’s moral censure of its violence. (I agree with Rosenbaum’s criticism, but that feature of the film didn’t bother me as much as it probably should.) There is minimal character development in the sense that our understanding of the characters (except Chigurh) deepens, but this is accomplished more consistently through exposition rather than action. Think for example of Woody Harrelson’s first scene, where his employer asks him to describe Chigurh. Sheriff Bell’s character is revealed through voice over and through conversations with his wife and deputy. I’like Bell’s character, but (thematically speaking) his final dream is not exactly subtle. What can seem natural in prose can feel forced in film, and (to quote from my friend Doug) thematic connections are always more powerful if you make them yourself rather than served up by heavy-handed writers or directors. So of all the awards the film won, I guess I quibble the most with Best Adapted Screenplay, since I don’t know that the film accentuates or meaningfully translates the book’s polyphonic narration and fragmented structure.

Then again, I sometimes wonder if all books or films with non-traditional structures tend to feel stronger on first experience. Once the refreshing nature of the structural unconventionality wears off, does the story told within that structure stand on its own? Does that unconventional structure serve the material or is it a stylistic veneer placed on a conventional story? The answers to those questions may begin to separate films like Memento from films like Psycho.  No Country for Old Men is somewhere between those two poles. It does have insights into the human condition, and it is poignant in the way it depicts age coming to terms with (rather than ever and always railing against) the deterioration of the world. If its style sometimes covers over how shallow its observations run, that doesn’t mean its a bad movie.

Just maybe not the best movie of 2007.

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