No Breathing Room: The Crucial Flaw of No Country for Old Men
A movie can be great and overrated, and so it is with the Coen brothers' No Country For Old Men. The Coens' trademark deftness with light and framing and showing a story rather than telling it gave us the best cinematic treatment of Cormac McCarthy to date. But much praise for the film conflates its technical brilliance with an imagined depth and detail of thought. In reality this film manages only to sketch ideas that have been more fully explored in other, similar films.
Considering the challenges of recreating the ideas from Cormac McCarthy's notoriously thorny and meditative prose with visual language, No Country For Old Men achieves some wondrous things. The choice to eschew music almost entirely is particularly inspired as a reflection of McCarthy's harsh, amoral world, and excellent performances help animate his ambivalent, despairing take on nostalgia for a simpler time that never quite was. A few things get lost in translation, but it's a mistake to get too caught up in comparing book and film here.
The problem instead is that in effecting their translation, the Coens produced a film that only engages the story's themes at arm's length. The pulpy churn of the main plot crowds out any deeper meaning the three main characters' pursuits of their respective fables might have.
Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) pursues the simple self-deception that he's cunning enough to steal $2 million from a cartel and live to enjoy it. That sets the captivating plot into motion, but the Coens excise some significant chunks of his flight, and freeze-dry the thematic nutrition out of his arc in the process. He's fun to root for, but exists solely to necessitate the chase.
Anton Chigurh's (Javier Bardem) fable is that the underworld's predatory jungle law responds to fate and luck, and can be influenced by how men tend to their sense of honor. That's a promising concept, but it's only hinted at, never fleshed out. No Country's most memorable moments involve Bardem leaning his full weight into dazzling lines that don't add up to anything coherent. “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?” is a great bit of language, but Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) is right: Chigurh just sounds insane. Beyond the grace of his syntax, his pseudo-existentialist riffs carry no more weight than a Bond villain's cackling soliloquy about the motives for his evil plot.
Sheriff Ed Tom Bell's (Tommy Lee Jones) fable is that men committed to rightness and legality are seeing a decay in their ability to preserve moral rectitude. Ed Tom's weary grappling gets a fuller treatment, getting critiqued by fellow lawmen—“What you got ain't new,” his uncle tells him—and reflected in the inter-generational tensions that crop up repeatedly at the edges of the story. Ed Tom’s statements are the closest No Country comes to actually biting down on some ideas rather than showing us the chain restaurant picture menu versions of them. But he, too, is just along for the ride of the main plot, popping in and out whenever it’s convenient.
There's a better Tommy Lee Jones film on all these themes: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada tackles fatally bad luck, nostalgic male honor fulfillment, and modernity's infringement on cowboy nobility without the sexy crime potboiler stuff that makes No Country so great an entertainment and so lightweight a film. The Coens have also done more with these ideas, in Blood Simple. The nominal stakes in these two movies are far lower than No Country's $2 million satchel of cash, but Blood Simple wrings more reflection on violence, mistrust, and self-deception out of a $10,000 wad. There's no bouncing ball of cash to follow through Melquiades Estrada, but rather the corpse and memory of a man far unluckier than anyone on the wrong end of Chigurh's cattle gun. The grand allure of the underworld pursuit makes No Country more fun, but it also reduces the big ideas its characters are chasing to window dressing for a nervy, unpredictable slaughter. The comparative simplicity and mundanity of the core stories in Blood Simple and Melquiades Estrada mean that those same ideas have room to breathe.--Alan Pyke
Alan Pyke is a writer and commentator on film, television, fiction, music, and politics, with a particular fascination for hiphop. He writes film reviews for TinyMixTapes and BrightestYoungThings, cultural criticism at The Daily Banter, and occasionally posts at his own site.