November 17, 2007

"No Country for Old Men"

Here's an excerpt from my review of the new action movie, which appears in the 12/3/07 American Conservative:

Developing video games is consuming more and more of today's creative talent, with little benefit to show for it in the broader culture. Traditional art forms such as poetry, music, and painting tended to inspire each other forward in a virtuous cycle, but video gaming, a mostly solitary vice, has been a cultural black hole. Game-inspired films, for instance, have largely failed, because watching a movie star frenetically shoot bad guys is missing the point of playing, which is to shoot them yourself.

Finally, Joel and Ethan Coen ("Fargo" and "The Big Lebowski"), the most gifted of the many brother-act frauteurs making films today, have figured out how to bring the pleasures of a problem-solving first person shooter game to the movie theatre. Strangely enough, they've done it in their first literary adaptation, a faithful rendition of "No Country for Old Men," the 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy, an acclaimed master of American prose.

Despite the 74-year-old McCarthy's august reputation, his book is a surprisingly high-energy art-pulp Western. It's essentially a chase featuring two highly competent antagonists: a West Texas good old boy (who, while antelope hunting, finds $2 million among the bullet-riddled bodies of Mexican drug-runners) tracked by a relentless killer hired to retrieve the money. ...

The Coen Brothers have discovered that the paradoxical key to making a video game movie is to slow down the action, allowing the viewer to think along with the hero and villain. Not since the sniper scene that makes up the second half of Stanley Kubrick's Vietnam film "Full Metal Jacket" has a movie played fairer with the audience in detailing the physical puzzles confronting the characters. How, for example, could you best hide two cubic feet of $100 bills in your motel room? And how could your enemy find such well-concealed money?

I know I've seen a well-crafted film when I walk out of the theatre yet still feel like I'm living in the movie. Leaving the amnesia thriller "Memento," for example, I was convinced I'd never remember where I'd parked my car. With "No Country," this post-movie spell lasted longer than I can ever recall. Even the next night, every car that passed me on a quiet street seemed an eerie, sinister harbinger of sudden violence.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

I had a problem with this film: there seemed to be an attenuated good moral message (or a message that basically said 'humanity is doomed'). In other words, the film was too bleak for my tastes, especially when we are asked as viewers to enjoy the spectacle of brutal killings. Unlike the other Coen brothers masterpiece, "Fargo", this film's central good guy (Tommy Lee Jones) seems too weary and resigned to the evil he encounters to do much good. I'll take Frances McDormand's character over Tommy's sherrif any day.

Anonymous said...

Videogames might be a vice, but nowadays they are hardly a "solitary" one. For example, you can play Halo 3 online and get repeatedly pwoned by a menagerie of obnoxious adolescents who constantly throw racial/sexual slurs at you. Not to mention life-destroying MMORPGs like World of Warcraft.

Hell, even the hi-score tables of prehistoric (that is, from the eighties) games were a tool social interaction -however indirect- since they fostered competition among players.

KlaosOldanburg said...

i read The Road by Cormac McCarthy not too long ago, and thought that it would make a fantastic video game.

it's an incredible book, especially for it's refreshing portrait of a competent, strong, caring father who is neither a compassionless, inept, brute nor an emasculated 'woman-with-a-penis' (the two flavors of men usually presented by our culture).

Anonymous said...

Wow, I read that book when flying from Europe.

Didn't think much of it at the time, but I didn't put it down until I finished it either.

Steve Sailer said...

Right, the sheriff is an unsatisfying inversion of the wonderful sheriff in Fargo. While 8 months pregnant Frances McDormand didn't look like a sheriff, she got the job done, while Tommie Lee Jones looks 110% like a sheriff, but turns out to be loquaciously ineffectual. So, the new film is a lot less satisfying as a cohesive dramatic work than Fargo. Instead, it's more like one try at video game, which ends unsatisfyingly, but then you try it again to see if your protagonist can survive longer.

Thursday said...

Every time after I watch Goodfellas I'm always paranoid for a couple weeks that I'm going to run into someone like Tommy out in the street.

BTW McCarthy's best book is Blood Meridian. Its one of the few books from the last 50 years that qualifies as a major work of art. Given your interest in Mexico and Mexican history, you should check it out. It is however pretty, well, bloody, so be forewarned.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Sailer said:
"Developing video games is consuming more and more of today's creative talent"

Funny you wrote that. I read in article in Time or Newsweek about how hard working and obsessive the nerds who create the Halo series games are. I was telling a friend a couple weeks ago that the US would be light years ahead of everyone in manufacturing, science, space etc. if the people who worked on video games moved on to other things.
What a waste of talent.

Anonymous said...

Anon -- you can hardly blame the game developers. It's where the money is.

Let's review: Hollywood is a closed shop where you have to have personal connections to enter as a writer, director, actor, etc. Most technical development is being outsourced to India or China in pursuit of cheap labor or H1-B Visa'd to death. Game development is the one area where American can-do people can still shine (for now).

Exception: Nintendo pretty much keeps it's system and games in-house. Unlike Sony and Microsoft.

Thursday said...

Alberta (Canada) company BioWare is coming out with Mass Effect, which is supposed to feature the most satisfying story line of any videogame so far. Is it possible for a game to be a bona fide work of art? We'll see.

Anonymous said...

"Is it possible for a game to be a bona fide work of art?"

Perhaps. However, it won't be because of the storyline. If games are -potentially, at least- art, they are a form of art more akin to music than to literature or storytelling. As with music, they can have a plot (like opera does) but it isn't strictly necessary. The real merit of a game lies in that nebulous term, "gameplay".

Anonymous said...

Was I the only person who was dissatisfied with the ending? There was no closure. The directors had no problem showing us every gory detail of the death of every minor character, but when it comes to the three main characters, you're left guessing as to the outcome.

Anonymous said...

I relly want to read "No Country" and I wanna see the movie. I just wished someone other than the Coen brothers had done it. I dont like them. I saw Cormac MacCarthy on Oprah,and he came across as a boring old grump. There was something loathsome about him. I guess you dont have to like the artist to enjoy his work,but please,a story like this is so good,why not let some(Better duck when the rocks start flying towrad my cranium)REALLY GOOD FILMAKER DO IT??? :)