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

by Lincoln Flynn, Stacia Kissick Jones, and Alan Pyke
March 27, 2013 8:35 AM
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Javier Barden in "No Country for Old Men"

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.

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  • 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 " 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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