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The Three Burials of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN; Three Takes on Its Overrated Status

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by Lincoln Flynn, Stacia Kissick Jones, and Alan Pyke
March 27, 2013 8:35 AM
9 Comments
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[Editor's note: The following is a collection of essays on the critical overestimation of No Country for Old Men, by Lincoln Flynn, Stacia Kissick Jones, and Alan Pyke.]

No Country for Old Men? Overrated!!!

When the Coen brothers’ eponymous film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men was released in 2007, it received near-universal critical acclaim; after the subpar efforts Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, it indicated an artistic comeback for its directors.

In general, the honed and virtuosic filmmaking skills of the Coens, combined with their postmodern storytelling sensibilities, give their detractors reason to call them talented but glib. Yet with No Country, the Coens-as-adaptors had ostensibly harnessed their usual instincts in the service of McCarthy’s source material, while using their talents as directors to make it a dynamic and multifaceted movie that had proved their salt as genuine auteurs.

Though many consider No Country to be an untouchable classic in the Coens’ oeuvre, it remains tonally flawed. Consequently—and at the risk of putting “my soul at hazard” by receiving invective from die-hard fans of the Coens and No Country—I consider it to be overrated and feel that A Serious Man and the Coens’ True Grit adaptation are more artistically successful later career films.

Effectively, No Country’s plot can be divided into two parts. The first part tells of the flight and pursuit of Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) by Texas Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) and psychotic hit-man Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) after Moss takes money from the scene of a drug-deal-related massacre. The second part resolves the three-tiered chase and further develops Bell’s melancholic nature.

Well within the Coens’ wheelhouse, the first part is basically a thriller that incorporates aspects of film noir and the western and is filmed or stylized in an artful and “resplendently austere” manner. The violence is gruesome, the editing is efficient, and the action and humor are darkly entertaining. The second part, on the other hand, is more restrained and less gruesome and humorous, in order to amplify the tragic and bleak resolution of the story.

This dichotomization of No Country is my main issue with the film: if Sheriff Bell’s resigned fear of entropy is where the basic theme of No Country lies, and if that fear is exemplified by the mayhem that is instigated by Llewellyn and Anton in the first half of the movie, then why did the Coens decide to represent that violence as slick and thrilling Grand Guignol? This is an inconsistency that makes the two parts of No Country incongruous and its resolution less devastating and resonant than it should be.

As I understand the character of Sheriff Bell, he doesn’t see anything fun or exciting in any of the chaos that he observes as a person and lawman. To him it is soul crushing and proof of the absence of God or any greater, noble meaning. Therefore, the film’s violence shouldn’t be kinetic or vivid. Likewise, if Bell’s saturnine worldview is thematically important in the end, then why is his apathy used as a source of much of the film’s gallows humor? This aspect feels appropriate to the Coens’ style but inappropriate to the story’s point.

When talking to a friend about the most recent James Bond film, she joked that “another name for Skyfall could’ve been No Country for Old Women.” Both No Country for Old Men and Skyfall feature Javier Bardem playing relentless villains who wear odd coiffures; also, both films were shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins. Moreover, both films have older authoritarian characters, played by Tommy Lee Jones and Judi Dench,, who respectively underscore the similar theses of each movie. Yet, as Skyfall is a franchise movie that had the added bonus of being dramatic and exquisitely made, for me No Country for Old Men is a well crafted yet thematically compromised art house version of a Terminator movie.--Lincoln Flynn

Holding degrees in Film and Digital Media studies and Moving Image Archive Studies, Lincoln Flynn lives in Los Angeles and writes about film on a sporadic basis at http://invisibleworkfilmwritings.tumblr.com. His Twitter handle is @Lincoln_Flynn.

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9 Comments

  • Steve | June 26, 2013 1:31 AMReply

    You're high.

  • Steve | June 26, 2013 1:31 AMReply

    You're high.

  • BLuth | April 1, 2013 1:02 PMReply

    This film has diminished every time I've viewed it. So, yeah, it's kinda one of those.

  • Chris | March 27, 2013 6:28 PMReply

    Do you even know what the word "eponymous" means?

  • Elijah Davidson | March 27, 2013 4:45 PMReply

    All three negative critiques seem to hinge on one point - NCFOM's cinematic style and/or narrative structure undercut any meaning. However, that's entirely the point of the film. There is no meaning, just as there is no meaning in life. Any meaning in life that could be is foiled by the events of life.

    The best treatment of this film that I have read was written by a New Testament professor, J.R. Daniel Kirk. You can read his interpretation of the film at Reel Spirituality. Search for "No Country for Old Qoheleth."

  • Abdullah A | April 1, 2013 11:22 AM

    Yeah, exactly. Remember that exchange Chigurh had with the old man at the gas station? That scene tells a lot about the movie, in my opinion.

  • Andrew R | March 27, 2013 4:00 PMReply

    "As I understand the character of Sheriff Bell, he doesn’t see anything fun or exciting in any of the chaos that he observes as a person and lawman. To him it is soul crushing and proof of the absence of God or any greater, noble meaning. Therefore, the film’s violence shouldn’t be kinetic or vivid."

    I'm not getting the A-to-B logic here. The violence in NCFOM is indeed captivating, but that does not equate to being *fun*. Chigurh's actions aren't endorsed. It's simply that their being alluring illustrates that chaos can be...kind of sexy. Dangerously so, to the point where giving in to temptation will result in your destruction. To run with your ideas about God: maybe characters like Chigurh existing doesn't just represent the absence of God, but the presence of the Devil. Everyone wants to give in and party alongside the devil sometimes, though they know it's the morally incorrect choice.

    What I'm getting at overall, I guess, is that while I think a modern director like Fincher has huge problems with representing the supposedly "Bad" actions in his films as far too much fun, resulting in thematic contradiction, the Coen's articulation of violence in NCFOM doesn't have those problems.

    Changing gears: I'm cool with the idea of critical reevaluation and all that on the surface but this seems like a humongous waste of an opportunity for Coen Bros. week. They have so many great films and instead a fifth of this series is put towards (admittedly well-written) takedowns. Why not just make the day about Blood Simple. and why that film is so great instead of evaluating it ONLY in relation to No Country? The worst violation in all of this: using the word "overrated." Really? I thought it was such common knowledge among film critic circles now that reducing assessment down to that word and acting as if there's some officially ruled-upon critical consensus is all but detestable. I expect more careful word choice from Press Play.

  • Steven Awalt | March 27, 2013 2:38 PMReply

    Interesting takes on the film, and it's good to read Jones's appreciation of "Blood Simple," a nearly neglected film in the Coen's work more often than not. This one thought struck me as a polar opposite of my reaction to "No Country," though:

    "Ambiguity in No Country, such as not showing a key death or ending a scene abruptly, is not meant to lead the audience to fill in points of the narrative themselves, but rather to allow the filmmakers to limit the emotions available to the audience. It's artifice designed specifically to deny catharsis, grief or resolution, all part of the Coens' rigorous cinematic control, but at great expense to realism."

    Spot on, right until the last part of that last sentence, the "...at great expense to realism."

    For me, I thought that the narrative-neutering artifice was completely confounding to the cinematic experience, or maybe the "cinematic realism" in that the lack of resolution for audience's expectations and even our emotions felt more of disjointed "real life" than cinematic life. In most movies, we expect more narrative resolution than life would ever bother to offer us, and the Coens methodically, cruelly and with sure intention deny us any form of resolution. They leave us instead with the unanswerable moral quandaries Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Corbin and Rodger Boyce discuss at various points in the film, and little else.

    On first viewing, my expectations lead me to feel truly miffed at the Coen's bald audacity; on further reflection and viewings, I revel in it. I don't know if that in itself is reason enough to praise the film to the rafters, especially since they did spend so long setting up what seemed to be a traditionally-told narrative, only to cut audiences off at the knees, but damn if it isn't richer than wrapping the whole film up in a neat package would have likely been.

  • dg | March 27, 2013 10:38 AMReply

    This might be the strangest argument I've ever heard: "As I understand the character of Sheriff Bell, he doesn’t see anything fun or exciting in any of the chaos that he observes as a person and lawman. To him it is soul crushing and proof of the absence of God or any greater, noble meaning. Therefore, the film’s violence shouldn’t be kinetic or vivid."
    Really hoping this post is to be followed with some reaffirmations of the brilliance of NCFOM... (Jeffrey Overstreet, are you there?)

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