December 21, 2007

"No Country for Old Men"

My full review of "No Country for Old Men" from The 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 solitary vice, has been a cultural black hole. Game-inspired films, for instance, have mostly 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.

Josh Brolin (Barbra Streisand's stepson) plays the Pac-Man being pursued, the trailer park protagonist, with the blue-collar likeability of character actor John C. Reilly and the technical resourcefulness of TV hero MacGyver. A skilled welder, he's smarter than he looks, but not quite ruthless enough. He could have made a clean exit with the $2 million, but instead, after telling his wife, "I'm fixin to go do something dumbern hell but I'm goin anyways," returns to save the last survivor of the drug deal shootout he had stumbled upon.

This act of mercy unleashes upon his trail a pitiless "Ghost," a hit man played by Spanish actor Javier Bardem as a Terminator-style juggernaut. Like Schwarzenegger's cyborg, he even performs surgery upon himself after a shootout.

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.

"No Country" inverts numerous elements from "Fargo." The crime in that 1996 film, for instance, was solved by a wonderfully unlikely sheriff, a polite and very pregnant Frances McDormand. Here, however, Tommy Lee Jones is typecast as the archetypal Texas sheriff, yet he proves frustratingly ineffectual at stopping the mayhem. Thus, the plot winds up as anti-climactically as most video game plays, with the (male) viewer wanting to try it again so the hero won't make the same mistakes twice.

For reasons I don't fully understand (and am not sure I really want to think about), most of us guys, no matter how blameless our lives, enjoy doing some contingency planning about how we'd handle it if we ever had to climb into that white Bronco and make a run for the border. Thus, many men hated the great Chick Flick "Thelma and Louise" less for its supposed feminism than for how dopily Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon let their feelings botch up their escape from Arkansas to Mexico. I quickly worked out for them an itinerary for their getaway over the Rio Grande to Matamoros, but they weren't equally serious about route selection and ended up in northern Arizona, where they fell, deservedly, into the Grand Canyon.

You can rest assured that the hero and villain in "No Country for Old Men," a Guy Movie if there ever was one, wouldn't miss Mexico by 500 miles.

Rated R for strong graphic violence and some language.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Poor Steve, he just doesn't "get" video games. There probably hasn't been a movie, novel or album in the last twenty five years as influential as Super Mario Brothers for the NES, yet Steve still thinks video games are a "black hole".

The purpose of games isn't necessarily to spawn movies: that games are represented poorly in movies is due to the limitations of movies, not of games. Given thirty years or so for further maturity the creative and cultural benefits of gaming should be extremely clear.

Anonymous said...

" Thus, many men hated the great Chick Flick "Thelma and Louise" less for its supposed feminism than for how dopily Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon let their feelings botch up their escape from Arkansas to Mexico."

Ok. So maybe the gals needed a Garmin or at least a visit to an internet cafe to download directions off Mapquest. Why don't you gloat a little more over your superior map reading skills? : p

Anonymous said...

The big plot hole is that the beat down, overwhelmed Sheriff is the only cop after the Bardem character.

In real life, as soon as the Sheriff makes the connection (via the abandoned car) that he's dealing with a cop killer, he'd notify the Texas Rangers and there'd be DOZENS of cops (local, state and federal) on his trail.

Murdering a police officer is not the sort of crime the authorities let slip through the cracks. Curiously, cop killers have an unhealthy propensity to resist arrest and never make it to trial.

Tino said...

Steve you often write brilliant reviews, but this was maybe your best
yet. The video-game analogy opened a new dimension in the movie for me. I especially liked your point about the frustrating feeling and wanting to replay the game.

Anonymous said...

This news item seems pertinent to the "videogames are consuming creative talent" argument.

By the way, games have influenced literature... if you count science fiction as literature. Look at Ender's Game, for example. (Not that I think it is a particularly good book, mind you.)

And a of music is being produced for videogames. Most of it derivative, trying to ape Hollywood soundtracks. I would like to see more experimentation in dinamically adapting the music to suit de game situation and stuff like that.

Anonymous said...

"There probably hasn't been a movie, novel or album in the last twenty five years as influential as Super Mario Brothers for the NES"

How has Super Mario Bros influenced the general culture? I'm genuinely curious about this.

"Given thirty years or so for further maturity the creative and cultural benefits of gaming should be extremely clear."

What would you say will some of those benefits be?

Garland said...

"Poor Steve, he just doesn't "get" video games. There probably hasn't been a movie, novel or album in the last twenty five years as influential as Super Mario Brothers for the NES, yet Steve still thinks video games are a "black hole".

Well, that's one game. How many games rise to the level of Miyamoto's in either artistry or influence? Whereas the other media you listed, even if they lacked a Mario, have had a comparably richer twenty five years by far.

But yeah, I know it's early.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree: this is a superbly written review! I'll have to go back and actually read some of your old ones now. Maybe I have missed out on something.

Also agree with the poster that the less-than-robust search for a cop killer was a gaping (and for the writers, convenient) hole in the plot. Anywhere in real life -- and I dare say, *particularly* in W. TX, having lived there years ago -- there would have been a hundred or so officers of numerous state and local agencies turning over every rock looking for that guy.

Anonymous said...

The hero would have needed to find the tracking device and disposed of it to make a clean getaway.

As for the sheriff being the only one chasing the bad guy, no. The problem was, the sheriff was the only one who read the situation well enough to even be close to what was happening.

Law enforcement officials usually mean well, but they are not generally the quickest ones off the block. The point was that this sheriff was exceptionally good at what he did--but even he was scared into quitting by the coldly ruthless and efficient nature of the likes of Anton Chigur.

Dennis Dale said...

The video game analogy is a good angle for understanding the appeal of this film, the intellect-dulling effects of too much actual video game playing on display here in the comments thread notwithstanding.

Games are having an effect on the look of films already. Where they're most influential is in films that place live characters in a digital frame, that go back to the videogame inspired (and videogame dull) "Tron". "Sin City" is one such film (I posted a YouTube video with what I thought was some remarkable footage from a Japanese film recently; the only one yet I've seen with both visual and dramatic appeal). I still find most of these to suffer from the Tarantino-effect: visually interesting but thematically and content-wise so insipid I leave the theatre wondering if I've sustained IQ-lessening brain damage from watching.

About ten years ago a pair of entrepreneurs tried to incorporate video technology directly into the theatre going experience, giving handsets to the audience and encouraging them to select from possible outcomes and direct the movie along. The footage I saw of test groups of young audiences tapping away with mindless glee sent a chill up my spine. The idea went nowhere very fast, proving that there very well may be a God. If there is, those two entrepreneurs are trimming Saddam Hussein's moustache in hell right now.

As for the film, Chigur is meant to represent change itself as a force of nature; coldly efficient and inscrutable, not to be deterred, and above all utterly indifferent to the damage wrought.
This is what Jones' character is relenting to in the end, nicely summed up by the anti-climactic ending. When I saw it the audience was absolutely incredulous. A film simply doesn't end this way. The Coens, in eschewing the Hollywood ending and sticking with the book, took back the handsets that corporate film-making, by relentlessly appeasing audiences, have been creating. Good for them.

Anonymous said...

I've heard the movie is excellent overall, but some people have remarked that it falls off a little near the end. Any truth to that?

Anonymous said...

The Coens often create crap. Pure unadulterated masturbatory, narcisstic crap. It's not the crap of say, "Next" or "Nanny Diaries" but crap nonetheless and crap of the terminally self-indulgent kind.

For every Big Lebowski and Fargo there are ... well No Country type films.

Refusing to have a climax is like playing half a song. It's lazy and self-indulgent. Audiences WANT resolution, one way or another, and that's why they call it drama.

The problem with the Coens is their often patronizing view of ordinary lives and people, from the Malibu mansions they inhabit. The actor Brolin complained about audience reaction to the film and the "stupidity" of the character taking the money and "not knowing his place" ... a sure sign that the movie and the Coens appeal to people far removed from ordinary lives.

A West Texas Sheriff so devoid of certainty that enough cleverness and preparation could lead him to overcome even the worst of men that he just gives up? Wow. THAT is contempt in spades for ordinary people, and not the portrait of real West Texas lawmen, who certainly don't lack confidence that given half a chance they can prevail.

Consider for a moment the fate of a real life Anton Chigur, except he really existed, and was ten times as scary. The notorious John Wesley Hardin, who was faster than Hickock (and whom Hickock NEVER seriously tried to disarm). Locked up for years in prison and a jail-house lawyer (which extended his life considerably), a pardoned Hardin practiced law, drinking, and autographing cards he'd shoot the centers out of at considerable paces for tourists.

At this point mind you he claimed to have killed personally 44 men. Which may have been not too far exaggerated.

El Paso Sheriff John Selman joined Hardin in cross-border expeditions to Mexico where he personally witnessed Hardin's amazing ability to kill people quickly, people who were also armed and expecting attack. After a feud ...

Selman shot Hardin in the back of the head three times.

Selman claimed he shot Hardin in the front of the face, right in the eyes. The Jury returned a hung verdict and the report that "if he shot him in the front, it was damn good shooting. If he shot him in the back, damn good judgment."

Now, even with regression to the mean, the descendants of guys like that are still walking around. Considering that this time setting was also that of Bill Jordan ("No Second Place Winner" and victor, i.e. he stayed alive, of many shootouts as a Marine in WWII and Korea) and Skeeter Skelton the idea that a West Texas Sheriff would just "give up" is about as likely as the guy leaving for Broadway to sing and dance.

True, the source novel by Cormac McCarthy has the immensely popular ending of ... just giving up. But then what did McCarthy ever know (born Providence RI) of gunfighters and their descendants?

You could probably make the argument that the late Jim Cirillo (killed in an auto accident in his seventies) survived more shootouts, as part of the NYPD Stakeout squad, than Hickock, Earp, and Bat Masterson combined.

It's the Seventies. Jordan claimed he could fire his double action revolver accurately into an enemy in .27 of a second with the gun in the holster.

Ron Guhname said...

tommy: I've read a number of good comments like Dale's about why the ending is intellectually satisfying, but in the end I care about the emotional experience, and it doesn't make sense to wind the audience up for more than an hour only to let all the air of it and turn to contemplation toward the end.

Anonymous said...

As for the sheriff being the only one chasing the bad guy, no. The problem was, the sheriff was the only one who read the situation well enough to even be close to what was happening.

This wasn't the Old West where the Marshal tries to keep the peace until the Cavalry rides in a week from Saturday. The movie takes place before the internet or cell phones, but its 1980 not 1880. The Sheriff read the situation correctly that he was dealing with a wanted cop killer. But many hands make for light work. Why wouldn't he use his radio or telephone to share his knowledge with the Rangers and the Highway Patrol (and there's no suggestion he withheld that information).

Every scene where you see the lone Sheriff a step behind, multiply that by 20 police officers putting out statewide APBs. Instead of driving into El Paso minutes too late, a real life manhunt would have the Rangers and the El Paso Police waiting to set a trap. If they ended up shooting up the Mexican drug gang in the process, well that's life in the big city but they'd keep looking for the cop killer.

Dennis Dale said...

For implausibility, how about a running gun battle in the middle of a small border town that leaves two civilians dead, one in a crashed pickup in the middle of the street, yet plenty of time for our wounded hero to hobble across the border, leaving a blood trail all the way.

And then, apparently after the Rangers make no effort to contact the Mexican authorities (the sleeping Mexican border guard is not unrealistic; crossing into TJ from San Diego on foot there is nothing but a turnstile) to locate the convalescing gringo with a gunshot wound, our protaganist walks back up to the border checkpoint in his hospital gown. The guard, a caricature of a redneck law enforcement type, is either totally unaware of the recent gunfight or just fails to make the connection.

Wait a minute; this is all silly. We know that Chuck Norris would have showed up and broke Chigur's windpipe with one of those slow-motion sidekicks before he, Tommy Lee Jones and the rest of the cast met at the saloon for a beer, whereupon someone would have made a wisecrack, and the whole thing ends with a freeze frame of the gang erupting in hearty laughter.

Anonymous said...

no country for old men was great until the end, which was absolutely terrible and ruined it. i've rarely been so angry leaving the theater. this movie was a 9 until the end, when it crashed and burned down to a 5.

a guy behind me complained out loud when the movie ended and so did i. the chatter on the internet seems to confirm that lots of people thought the ending was extremely bad.

Shining Wit said...

a) Video games are, indeed, a black hole. But so is all culture. It leads to reflection and away from direct experience of life. Without video games, the men left adrift in a feminized culture would really be lost.

b) Great review, as per the usual. It helps that it was a great movie, probably their best. (The snob in me wants to say: "the best since Blood Simple".) I saw it as a reflection on free will vs. determinism. Too many people are willing to live their whole lives without making any of their own decisions, giving credence to their own dreams: they just march to the beat of civilization, and so leave their life up to a series of coin-flips.

Anonymous said...

I am Lugash

For reasons I don't fully understand (and am not sure I really want to think about), most of us guys, no matter how blameless our lives, enjoy doing some contingency planning about how we'd handle it if we ever had to climb into that white Bronco and make a run for the border.

I blame the Boy Scouts. Throughout my entire youth they kept pounding "Be Prepared" into my brian.

I am Lugash.

Anonymous said...

Poor communication is a recurrent device in crime movies, seehere.

Anonymous said...

Pac man the movie, nice idea.

Few questions about the movie:

When Moss (Brolin) jumped out of the hotel window, with the money, why on earth did he head back there?

How does Wells (Woody Harrelson), find out that Moss is in the Mexican hospital?

And after that, Moss calls Well's room and talks to Chigurh (Bardem) who's just killed Wells. What was his intention in that call - 'No I'm not giving you the money, just thought I'd tell you.'? That makes a lot of sense. Wells did ask him to call, maybe he was just being polite.

The movie seemed to skip the shooting of Moss. Why, since his demise was the point of the pacman like chase?

How was he found at that hotel? He didnt' have the transponder then. Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) knew he was there too, how? How did they all know this? Furthermore, what was the point of going to El Paso? Good time to get out of state you'd think.

Lastly, I agree with the others in that I expected there to be more of a to-do about a loose cop killer in West Texas.

All in all I thought the movie was pretty good. The photography was excellent, the acting harmonious, the locations were believable. Can't say it had a lot of dramatic tension for me though, at any stage of the game.

Anonymous said...

This movie sucked BIG TIME ! After going through the motions of a seemingly never ending plot of chase, the main character ends up with breakfast and job undone.I guess it was to show the inefficiency of Texas officers and a lack of help to track down a killer of how many people? No FBI or other agencies involved in apprehension.True to life it wasnt.I rate it a 2 just for trying.I can go on about many inconsistancies within the film and its framework but why? Its a dud and a poorly written script.

Anonymous said...

just saw no country for old men; it's unassumingly unconventional and yet (thankfully) never over the top. a bit morally dumbfounding, but that can be a good thing... all in all the Coen brothers deserve their Oscars, well done indeed.

Anonymous said...

I think "No Country" takes place in the 1969 to 1975 era I see no PC's etc....

Greets all ...
Here's my take on the final Bell/Chigurh scene in the hotel room.

In the scene immediately preceding it, Bell & Old Deputy sherif speak of life (theres "NO Counrty for Old Men"....Realy.) and Chigurh's audatious returns to the scene of his own crimes (killing the hotel proprieter @ the hotel eagle), to kill again (Carson Wells).

I think that this thought is in Bell's mind when he approaches the hotel door behind the police tape--he imagines that this is the case here as well and that Chigurh is in the room.

You can see the resolve in Bell's face as he decides to enter anyway, letting fate be what it may. Most blogs I read say Chigurh is behind the door.

The film trick- is in the split screen of both Chigurh and the dead bolt hole in the door. The very hard to see Split-Screen showed Chigurh on the left of the split and door hole on the right split.

THIS confuses the viewer into thinking Chigurh was behind the doorhiges. He was UNDER the BED.

The next view of the hole only shows it from the eye view angle of Chigurh's under the bed position.

It seems to me that it was Bell's poor detective work, sitting on the bed etc...and that Chigurh simply did not kill him because Bell "did not see him" like the Accountant had.

I do not really like how this type of filmography has to be anylzed to this level of ambiguous depth though!

I also never could figure out why Chigurh deserted the money under the tree in the first place.

A plant maybe?....he had the homing device....Perhaps he was cleverly caught by the cop he strangled.

But a great movie anyway.

Poughkeepsie NY