Thursday, January 31, 2008

'No Country for Old Men'-- Is No Movie for the Faint of Heart

Movies about psychopathic killers 'with rules and principles' are not the usual fare of Oscar nominations, at least not for best picture, but 'No Country for Old Men' is an exception to most rules for sure. This movie has been hailed as an instant classic, as near perfect, as a nearly perfect adaptation of a novel for the silver screen, and the plaudits keep on coming. I must admit that it's subject matter kept me away for a long time, but eventually I decided I needed to see what all the shouting was about. Turns out they were right that it is an amazing film, just not in any way a pleasant one.

The movie is R rated due to violence, and clocks in at 2 hours and 2 minutes. Unlike slasher and some pure horror movies this movie is neither mindless terror and blood, nor endless gore without a point. Indeed, most of the movie is a psychological study about the change in character of America over the recent decades, seen through the lens of Texas law men like Tom Ed Bell (brilliantly played by Tommy Lee Jones), a third generation Texas Law man. The change I am referring to is the lurching towards ever more violence, ruthlessness, and despair in the last century. The movie was filmed around Marfa Texas, as was 'There will be Blood', so I am hoping this helped the coffers of that tiny town in far west Texas, population about 2,000. It is also the place where the classic film 'Giant' was made as well.

Something should be said about the Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan), the two headed director-producers of this and many other interesting films. I have liked their previous, if quirky work, like Raising Arizona (a young Nicholas Cage makes a star turn), Fargo, and my personal favorite 'O Brother Where Art Thou'? a true classic. It is not an accident that these siblings have won Academy Awards before, and I will be surprised if more hardware is not pulled in for this film as well. But back to the story itself. This film will not 'entertain' nor warm the cockles of your heart.

We have perhaps become accustomed to rough justice scenarios in films about Texas, but this film is about rough, and ongoing, injustice that is relentless. As Tom Ed's relative says to him near the end of the movie "you can't stop what's coming". And you get the sense that Bell feels overwhelmed, and instead of trying to stem the tide of senseless violence, he simply retires, and has dreams of joining his father in death. He ruminates about how he expected God to come after him and invade his life in his later days, but instead what happened was malevolent evil showed up on his doorstep.

In this movie the Law, whether the police or the DEA appear as impotent to stop the drug and money trade trapsing across the border from Mexico to Texas. The Law is good, but no match for Evil, particularly as embodied in the person of one Anton Shugar, a hired psychopathic killer, sent on the trail of one Lewellyn Moss who has made the big mistake of trying to take the money and run, from the desert scene of a drug for money swap gone terribly wrong. Indeed, even innocent women are no match for this killing machine, who decides life and death issues by flipping coins.

The title of the movie 'No Country for Old Men' comes from the fact that the old are of course too worn out to deal with such persistent ruthlessness, and this includes old law men like Sheriff Bell. Indeed, it might be said that Texas is but a parable of the whole country which has become 'no place for the old, the tired, the poor, the defenseless, and so on.'

If you are looking for redeeming features in this movie, or silver linings there really are none. It is a profoundly depressing film, which has its greatest success in accurately portraying psychopathic evil in the person of a hit man, which is resilent, takes a licking but keeps on ticking. Don't go see this film unless you are steeling against the heart of darkness which creeps across the land. As for me, I can only imagine that 'There will be Blood' will seem like a joy fest compared to this film. Both seem to suit very well the cold and dark of a January day. I guess I'll go see that other Marfa film next :(


Unknown said...

You might find the observations expressed in this post and the comments, to be of interest.

Paul said...

Great review. It definitely is a brutal, unforgiving film--not Oscar Best Picture material, in my opinion, but we'll see. I found the themes of free will versus fate/predestination to be especially thought-provoking. Remember that pivotal scene where Tommy Lee talks to the guy who's retired? He scolds him for thinking should be good, civilized even, because he wants it to. "It's not all depending on you. That's vanity."

Then there's what Tommy Lee said about God: "I once thought that maybe God would come into my life....but He didn't." Here again the theme of predestination.

That said, I did not expect such a savage, humorless film from the Coen brothers. "Fargo" had its funny moments, but this one really shows humanity, and America, for what it really is.

Anonymous said...

To add, the title of the film is taken from Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium." A reading of that poem with the film in mind may be revealing...

sgreene25 said...

Great synopsis and review! I found myself a bit overwhelmed when the credits began to roll. I kept waiting for the conflict to be resolved and instead the movie just ended, which probably mimicks real life more than most movies. I will be curious of your review of "There will be blood" Did you notice or am I wrong, was their no original score or music throughout the whole film?



Ben Witherington said...

There was a credit of one Johnny Greenwood for music for the film, but I agree there wasn't much there.


Ben Witherington said...

Yes Yeats is of course famous for that poem and for the stirring words "the center cannot hold.... the best lack all intensity...(a good description of the sheriff in this movie) and what rough beast is now slouching its way towards Bethlehem..." Let's hope it is not Anton Shugar.


Falantedios said...

Many times in my life I've thought, "Boy, I wish my life had a soundtrack so that I'd have known what was about to happen!"

I think that was the Coens' published point in not having a soundtrack. Too many stories cheat with it.


Alan said...

Regarding the film's music, Alex Ross of The New Yorker would beg to differ:

Graham Buck said...

Good review Ben, though I would like to hear your thoughts on the scene with Ed Tom and Ellis (the man in the wheelchair). I found it to be perhaps the best scene in the movie, but one which seemed to undermine the premise that the country is becoming more and more a place of violence and ruthlessness.

They are talking about "Uncle Mac", a lawman who was shot on his front porch by a group of Native Americans, and Ellis, concerning the 'hopeless' situation Ed Tom feels he is in, says,

"...What you got ain't nothin new. This country is hard on people. Hard and crazy. Got the devil in it yet folks never seem to hold it to account."

I thought the movie was excellent (though I must admit that the theme of purposelessness of life and the hard hand of fate can sometimes seem overplayed), but a little uneven when it came to this point. It's a great scene, but doesn't move the story line.

And, as something of an aside, what do you think the story is trying to say in the mirrored episodes of offering money for clothes?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Graham:

Well I liked that scene as well, and it was simply making the point that we have always been a violent country that's hard on people, but as you say, the scene does not move the story along at all, which I think is the point. Such insight changes no behavior. Information without transformation availeth not.

As for the money for clothing deal, I thought it was stressing that while you can change your appearance with the help of money, you can't change your natute. Remember the little speech of the wife of Lewellyn Moss about how he would never back down or change his mind. This movie is full of people like that. Sheriff Bell however, depressingly, is not one of them. He changed his mind from believing he could make a difference, to ceasing to believe it. And what about that scene where he walked into the motel crime scene room, and Anton was in there, but nothing happened? He didn't bag the criminal, and the criminal did nothing to him. This, and the end of the movie were stressing the untidyness of life, and how things do not always turn out right by any means.


Ben W.

Unknown said...

But how did Anton get out of that hotel room when Tommy Lee came and busted in? He was in there, and then he wasn't?! I saw it twice and still haven't figured that out.

I enjoy your reviews.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Sheriff Bell's conversation with his Uncle Ellis is the closest thing to resolution: "Whatcha got ain't nothin new."

How biblical. It recalls Genesis 6and humanity before the Flood; and it practically quotes Eccelesiastes. It might be new to Sheriff Bell, but it's not new.

Following that, at very the end the sheriff reports his dreams to his wife. In the second dream, Bell is destined to meet his father, who has prepared a place where the two of them can take shelter from the snowy storm. Hmmm.

Anonymous said...

Re Where was Anton when Ed walked in the room?

He was in the other motel room next door. Remember the tape blocked off two rooms?

Classic Lady and the Tiger thing, randomness of fate, live or die on a coin toss. Ed knew he got lucky and didn't go in the other room.

Pat R said...

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