“Call it, friendo.”
Rated R. In Theaters. Written and Directed by Joen & Ethan Coen. Based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy. Starring Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Kelly MacDonald & Woody Harrelson.
No Country for Old Men is the type of film that cinéastes want so desperately to love that it ends up with more credit than it deserves. Oftentimes people like a movie precisely because they want to like it so much, especially when there is a “theme” that implies a deeper meaning to the film. It is a pet peeve of mine when someone dismisses criticism with a “you just didn’t GET it” type of attitude implying the intellectual superiority of their viewpoint, almost as if it is a badge of honor to share their viewpoint. There is a definite elitist feel to some of those who have hailed the film, and specifically the controversial third act, which I will not detail here (I will in the comments if anyone wants me to) because it would definitely spoil it for those who haven’t seen it. Needless to say, while I can appreciate an alternative narrative structure, or an unconventional ending, I felt like No Country‘s final act derailed a potentially extraordinary film.
The film begins with Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) hunting deer and stumbling upon a grisly crime scene and a briefcase full of money that the psychopathic Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) has been hired to track down. Tommy Lee Jones is the sheriff on both of their trails, and to reveal more of the plot is somewhat unnecessary. Both Brolin and Bardem give career-defining (and award-worthy) performances and I particularly liked Kelly MacDonald as Moss’ wife in the few scenes she was in. The film is very well-done with great acting, directing and cinematography, with the lack of a score and effective use of silence amping up the tension.
Then came the final act, which essentially ruined the film for me — I realize they were being faithful to their source material, but the kind of ruminating they aim for works better in literary form, film is obviously a more visceral medium and the end destroyed the tone and style of the first part of the movie. Also, there was absolutely no indication of the type of movie it would become in the first two-thirds, and there is not skill in fooling a captive audience. What bothered me more than this sort of “fuck-you” to the audience was that the unsatisfying ending was done in service of a theme that I thought was shallow and straight out of Philosophy 101.
But therein lies the main problem with No Country For Old Men — this is not an ambiguous Blade Runner “Is Deckert a replicant?” kind of debate, the ending is actually pretty straightforward, without much of an argument I can see over the filmmakers’ intent. In fact, the Coens kind of beat you over the head with the “theme”, which sort of undermines the “you didn’t GET it” argument. I got it, but I didn’t like it, and I didn’t like that it sacrificed the brilliant first two acts to get there. I maintain that they could have satisfied both camps — those who wanted a deeper meaning (but not too deep…something that they could understand easily) and those who wanted a kick-ass conventional ending — if they had set it up better from the start of the film.
There are other, less important flaws in the film, including the absolute waste of Woody Harrelson’s character, who apparently plays a much more prominent role in the book. In the film his character is just a distraction and while there is a great scene that he is involved in, the role his character plays doesn’t end up making much sense. There is also an out-of-place comic relief character (Moss’ mother-in-law), thrown in there as if to remind you that this was, in fact, a Coen brothers movie.
Ultimately and unfortunately, No Country For Old Men has to rank as one of the most disappointing films I’ve ever seen, if only because of how great the first 2/3rds are. And goddamn, was it great — with one of the best standoff sequences I’ve ever seen and some other tense, suspenseful, memorable scenes. If the film had finished the way it started, it would definitely crack my all-time top 10. It’s too bad that I’ll remember the film for what it could have been rather than for what it was.