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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Why Blood Simple Towers Over No Country for Old Men

Characters in the films of Joel and Ethan Coen tend toward the archetypical, but rather than existing in their expected cinematic habitat, they're placed in ridiculous and macabre situations they simply are not prepared for. Though it is usually a delightful conceit, in No Country for Old Men (2005), it starts to become a belabored what-if scenario rather than a meaningful set of juxtapositions. No Country is a meditation on mortality and the eternal fight between humanity and inexplicable evil, set in rural Texas in the early 1980s, the same locale and era as the Coens' early neo-noir Blood Simple. Both feature postmodern aesthetics, pitch-perfect and witty dialogue, the celebration of regional variances in language and culture, and characters suffering from a surfeit of poor decisions. They are both without question exceptional films. Comparisons between them are unavoidable, though in terms of style and substance, Blood Simple is the more successful of the two.

In Blood Simple, a series of misunderstandings and double-crosses combine with darkly comic undertones in a situation that could be resolved, or at least improved, if the two main characters had just talked to each other. The characters are at times very silly, an endearing trait in a film that examines the tragedy of poor choices. The Coens have since ceased caring whether the audience sympathizes with characters or not, though that tack is quite effective in No Country for Old Men. While Blood Simple is about lack of communication, No Country shows us that, sometimes, communication makes no difference at all. A flattened affect throughout the film heightens the realization that emotional connections simply do not matter in the face of true evil.

Where this flatness of emotion goes wrong is in No Country's tendency to leave moments unfinished. The Coens at one time were more than willing to let audiences figure things out for themselves. 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.

Blood Simple, like most Coen brothers films, is clearly referential. One of the best such moments is the brazen borrowing of the famous ground-level swooping shot from Evil Dead (1981), a film which Joel Coen had worked on as assistant editor. The reference simultaneously invokes humor, the horror genre and a nod to burgeoning indie film movement of the film’s time. But where references like these in Blood Simple are natural and lighthearted, in No Country they are cold, calculated moments of manipulation. No Country, for example, copies the restaurant scene from Fargo; in these scenes, police officers in both films achieve necessary moments of clarity. It's heavy-handed and out of place in No Country, a lazy quotation of their own cultural milestone without thought for its relevance.

Early in the Coens' filmmaking careers, contempt was not a successful trait in a character. M. Emmet Walsh's P.I. in Blood Simple possesses an undisguised derision for everyone around him, but it is undermined by the resourcefulness and luck of those he's trying to con. For the Coens, the purpose of contempt has changed, and is now often the single biggest factor in resolving conflict: A character who shows contempt almost always wins out.

This is especially true in the case of the psychotic Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in No Country, a killer whose contemptuous attitude is proven right time and again. It is his most important and identifiable characteristic, one that allows his particular brand of evil to succeed. Meanwhile, small-town sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is just as exasperated with the folks around him, though he keeps his contempt in check, leaving him powerless against the sociopath's self-imposed moral superiority.

The disdain for humanity in No Country, as in many of their other films, spills over into the filmmakers' contempt for the audience. The Coens seem loathe nowadays to even acknowledge there is such a thing a worthwhile everyday person. In Blood Simple, Ray (John Getz) is an everyman archetype, on the surface as bland as John Gavin in Psycho (1960), yet we're fascinated by his actions and sympathetic with him when things go wrong. In No Country, a series of everypersons, both men and women, are grotesques, stubborn and dull and frustrating. In an attempt to lead the audience into the mind of a killer, the Coens want us to be as unimpressed with these everyday people as Chigurh is; once you resist, Chigurh becomes caricature, just another dead-eyed psycho with a gimmick.

In the process of subverting themes in No Country for Old Men, the Coens often dispense with narrative altogether, preferring to use the film as a vehicle for delivering their own signature style. The film never quite gets around to challenging the validity of conventional cinematic narrative techniques, though it clearly means to do so. Blood Simple, in contrast, challenges common genre constructs precisely because it uses standard narrative techniques, and also allows for a humanity that encourages viewers to more closely engage with the moral and ethical dilemmas presented. Though both films are fine works in their own right, Blood Simple is a more exceptional one—even if it is more traditional.--Stacia Kissick Jones

Stacia Kissick Jones is a recovering literature major, freelance editor and film critic. She is a regular contributor at Spectrum Culture Online and ClassicFlix, and blogs at She Blogged By Night (http://www.shebloggedbynight.com).

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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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