No Country for Old Men

Josh Brolin in No Country for Old Men (dir. Ethan Coen & Joel Coen, 2007).

One of the things I like about No Country for Old Men is that, unlike with the majority of major studio releases, my first response is not to think about what its ideological unconscious is. I mean, I'm sure that it has one--that it, like all entertainment, signifies meaningfully as a symptom--but there is so much going on with narrative, character, framing, and so on that my mind is still not through with it just at that level. It sustains its appeal for the part of me that continues to be fascinated with classical filmic craft.

And yet, even acknowledging that the film affected me this strongly, I still have reservations. I'm surprised by how much I really just want a crime story to behave like a conventional machine. I'm surprised by how much I want narrative closure. The movie works beautifully up to the last few minutes in large part because of how it keeps making you readjust your expectations. Expectations, that is, with regard to plot. Then, however (as many reviewers have remarked approvingly), at the very last second, it makes you readjust your expectations with regard to what kind of story it is. And in a way, it's stunning how successfully the Coens pull this off. The problem is that I may finally prefer the story I thought it was at first.

The story it first seems to be is a well-oiled genre vehicle: a series of discoveries, murders, thefts, pursuits, close calls, confrontations, turnabouts, fakeouts. The story it turns out to be is a "probing psychological drama" or something. It's at the point that this story emerges that the full weight of the title manifests itself. And that's too bad, because I pretty much think Yeats is insufferably ponderous. From what I've read (which I'll admit isn't much) I've generally had the same impression of Cormac McCarthy, to whose novel I understand the film is exceedingly faithful. So I'm finally torn between being impressed that McCarthy had all this fine pulp action in his imagination, and disappointed that he finally succumbed to his more "literary" pretensions. I wish he had given up around the last chapter or so and let Elmore Leonard or Donald Westlake finish it.

Part of the reason it's so pleasing to be thrown for so many narrative curves is that it increases your anticipation of that final curve: the twist that will bring the entire fictive mechanism in for a landing. Some landing, any landing. When it is suddenly announced at the last moment that hey, we're not playing that game after all, we're playing this other game, all that built-up suspense feels like a haughty charade. It's as if you are being set up by the storytellers, made to look like a philistine for being invested in the genre you were led to believe you were enjoying.

The bulk of the movie is so good, however, that I can't help but recommend it enthusiastically.


phaneronoemikon said...

I haven't seen this, but my queston is, why this one and not Blood Meridian? It's like a really good hybrid (work with me) of Western Noir, and something verging on Conrad. It gets abit threadbare at the end
too though. What I mean is, you basically are describing the same formula as blood meridian
but in the book at least the flavor, if not the totality of the plotting, or say, completion of the plotting, worked for me.. it gets a little Dagobah or something
except Yoda is evil and played by Marlon Brando.

Have you done that Brando Western where he plays the cross-dressing assassin?

Ryan said...


I was left wondering that too (in the movie). And while expectation bending is good n'all, the movies I've seen that end on a larger, more epic (epic in that history, our contemporary history, is grounded in the tale, somehow) "point" seem to always come from Hollywood. I can't help but turning my own stomach when I see this...it's too, "Hey, we know you paid 12 bucks (in NYC) to see the movie and we want you to come away from the movie with a literary experience. Here's something that matters. And here's why." It really bothers me, because it turns an otherwise great genre film, gritty and compelling, into a Lovefest of Morgan Freemanesque voiceovers, where we're given the advice and moral. Bleh.

I just saw Nueve Reinas again. I'd recommend that for genre (heist) hijinks that don't disappoint.