No Country for Old Men

Posted on March 11, 2008 at 8:00 am

“I’m fixin to go do somethin dumbern hell but I’m goin anyways. If I don’t come back tell Mother I love her.”
“Your mother’s dead Llewelyn.”
“Well I’ll tell her myself then.”
For the Coen brothers’ first-ever adaptation of another writer’s work, they found an author whose terse, wry, gritty dialogue is a perfect match. Cormac McCarthy’s book about a man who finds a case full of money at the scene of a drug deal gone very, very wrong is ideally suited for the Coen brother’s understated talk and striking visuals.

This is the Coen brothers’ four-time Oscar-winner, including best picture, adapted screenplay, and director. Four men walk through this movie. All have eyes that have seen more than they’d have liked to and have learned lessons that hit them hard. Llewelyn (Josh Brolin in a star-making performance) is the Vietnam vet who comes upon a group of dead bodies, a pile of heroin and an almost-dead man begging for water and realizes that somewhere there has to be a last man standing. He tracks him, and finds him dead, too, with the money. Llewelyn takes it.
Three men come after him: hitman Anton Chigurh (Oscar-winner Javier Bardem), who likes to kill with the compressed air bolt gun used to slaughter cattle and who will bet a man’s life on the toss of a coin, Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), who thinks he can sort things out without anyone getting killed or arrested, and sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a tough guy who suspects that all the toughness he has ever known will not be enough for a new kind of threat. He knows that you have to be willing to die to have his job, and that is all right. But what he is trying to figure out is whether you have to be willing to become, whether you have to be willing to “put your soul at hazard.” And that he is not willing to do.
The dialogue is plain, even miminal, but pointed. “Be careful,” Bell’s wife says. “Always am.” “Don’t get hurt.” “Never do.” Don’t hurt no one.” “If you say so.” “I think we’re looking at more than one fracas,” Bell says, surveying an array of bodies.
This helps to anchor a story rich with visual complexity. The heel marks on the floor made by a flailing man who is being strangled create a Pollock-like flurry of frantic black marks surrounding the ultimate stillness of the dead body. Dualities flicker through the story. Milk. Boots. Hunting and being hunted. Borders. And order vs. chaos. Endless vistas. Trusting people. And very, very bad things that happen even if they do not make sense.
Joel and Ethan Coen get a lot of credit for their visual flair and their dark and twisted sensibility, but they do not get the recognition they deserve as directors of actors. They work with superbly talented people, but they get the best from them. Every character is rich and compelling. And the story they tell is not just dark and twisted; it is elegaic.
Parents should know that this movie includes extremely intense peril and graphic violence with grisly and disturbing images, many characters injured and killed, constant strong language, some sexual references, drinking, smoking, drug dealers.
Family discussion: Were you surprised by the end of this movie? How does it relate to the title? Does this movie have a hero? Who? Families should read the poem by Yeats that inspired the title.
If you like this, try: the book by Cormac McCarthy, Desperado, and other Coen brothers movies like Blood Simple and Fargo.

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Crime Drama

11 Replies to “No Country for Old Men”

  1. Hi Nell,
    Long time no “talk.” No Country……hmmmmmmmmmmmmm…….What a great, sorta, kinda, I’m really trying to say “What a terrific movie!” but I just can’t. The ending was a struggle. A real struggle. After being mesmerized by this compelling story filled with interesting characters as you described them, the ending left me empty. The last 15 minutes or so of the film were no where near as worthwhile as the rest of the movie. It may not be the literal story of the end but how it was shown to us. I just don’t know. I felt extremely let down by the ending.
    Except for the comedy, “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou,” I don’t think the Cohens ever matched the brilliance of their early work, particularly “Blood Simple” and “Barton Fink.” It is almost as if their clever style of story telling sometimes hits a point where they are trying to “out-clever” themselves. It is almost like, “How clever (cool) can we be?” They almost loose site of the fact that the prime thing is to show us a story and not to be as witty as humanly possible. DaVinci said, “The greatest tragedy is when technique outstrips performance.” When I was a younger artist, I didn’t really follow this. Now I do. The Cohens often walk the tightrope here, and with their latest effort, I believe they fell off, due to the ending……oh well.
    Any thought?

  2. Good to hear from you and thanks for visiting my new site! The audiences seems split on the ending. The Washington Post’s critic Stephen Hunter came down on your side. But for me, the ending worked. Yes, it was a departure from the usual. We rely on movies (and books and songs and epic poems and stories in all forms) to provide the resolution and sense of fairness, linearity, and completion we don’t get from messy old life. But it seemed to me that this story had that — just in a different category. What do you think the title was about? For me, it signaled what the end was going to be right from the start. I like the DaVinci quote, though — applicable in many contexts. Thanks for writing and please keep checking the site!

  3. This was a terrible movie…we walked out after about 30 minutes. A waste of time we will never get back.

  4. Thanks for writing, Moonpie! This movie is definitely not for everyone, and now that it is getting all kinds of critics awards, I worry that people who are not the right audience for the move will go in and feel the way you did. I would love to know what caused you to go to this film. Did you read reviews? Had you liked previous movies from the Coen brothers?

  5. Didn’t like the movie. In fact, hated it. Had my husband leaned over and said “let’s leave” I would have. I have no more interest in movies that show strands of reality that are so distasteful and disturbing. (Traffic, Crash, Man on Fire) I don’t need to sit for 2 hours of my valuable time being shown murder without conscience, bad drug deals, psycho killers etc to know that life is precious and sometimes is just not fair. Not only that, I am offended when movies like this are up for awards. Are we really that hard up for entertainment?? Bring me Gone with the Wind or The Sound of Music!!!!
    (and I’m only 45)

  6. Thanks for the comment, Cindy. This is exactly why I became a movie critic — to help people find the movies that are right for them and avoid those that are not. People go to movies for all kinds of reasons. Some just want entertainment, something light and fun. Some want escape, and fantasy. Some want inspiration and uplift. But some want engagement with the darker angels as well as the better ones humans struggle with, and I think that is the audience for this film.

  7. Along with “Fargo,” and “Raising Arizona,” I think this is one of the Coen brothers best films, though I also found the ending dissatisfying. (Unlike the ending of “Fargo” which I thought had perfect ending.)
    I “got” the message of the ending, I just think that there is a human desire for closure that was not satisfied by this film’s resolution. Agreed that Josh Brolin was great in this film, and, of course, Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones. In spite of my dissatisfaction with the ending, I would definitely see this film again. It certainly has a lot to say about the nature of evil.

  8. Good movie and good review by Nell. I agree with your comment that movies goers today should read before they go. And this movie is not for everyone. I liked the ending and thought it was a powerful ending. The total despair in Tommy Lee Jones charactor at the end was worth the wait. The violence is intense and was portrayed with graphic reality. That is part of our world. And life ending without meaning is real for a lot of people. Sheriff Bell was the hero alright. He was not a perfect hero as in some films. He realized that his time was done, that he could no longer fight the type of younger criminals in today’s world. The abrupt ending is played out every day. Unfinished! Not knowing is one our basic dislikes. We want to know so we can make sense out of it. This story could have been told in different wasys. But, I like this movie because the Coens know how to tell a story. This movie might be better when seen the second time. Thanks Nell !!

  9. just watched no country for old men, it was unassumingly unconventional yet (thankfully) never over-the-top. the Coen bros. deserve their Oscars; well done indeed.

  10. Hi Nell, (LOVE the new site, BTW!)–
    I’ve wanted to write a follow up for quite sometime to your response to my comments regarding “No Country For Old Men.” You said you were OK with the ending and it worked for you. Just a note here to clarify, as I said in my comments, that I am fine with the LITERAL ending of the movie–with what happened–I do not like the way in which those literal events were told to us. Not showing us how the “hero” died was a real kick in the stomach to the audience, and then the telling of the events revolving around the prime serial killer took so long to unravel, it was as if we (the audience) now had a difficult riddle told to us in the last seconds that upon deciphering, we would know what happened. Just too many psychological mazes to figure out and hoops to jump through to get there. As my mom used to say when she would channel surf trying to find something to watch, “I’m just looking for a good story.” I love lots of different kinds of films for a variety of reasons but this time, with “No Country For Old Men,” I feel the Cohens outsmarted themselves by trying to be sooooooo clever with how the ending was told, that it was a MAJOR let down after what otherwise would have been a phenomenal film, possibly and instant classic, and one that arguably had some ground-breaking stuff in it. Alas, they blew it. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.) Best Wishes!

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