No Country for Old Men - Second, hopefully more coherent, spoiler-riddled reaction

It's right up there in the title too, but a final warning just in case: major **SPOILERS** ahead!

It's been almost 24 hours now since I started watching No Country for Old Men, and after much reading and rumination (see also the reading list below), I have come to a conclusion: the Coen brothers have put a lot, and I mean by that A LOT of ideas into this movie, but I doubt there is an overarching thought or message to be found. This should, of course, not come as a surprise: these are the Coens we're talking about. It means the only deeper meaning you'll find is the one you, yourself, bring to the table. The movie has no clear interpretation, it can be interpreted at least half a dozen ways.

And that's what makes it great.

Take, for instance, Chigurh. He works on a superficial level because - using the words of another character - he is the ultimate bad-ass. On a deeper level, he soon becomes more complicated. Is he evil personified, as some have suggested? Is he the Grim Reaper? Is he fate, a ghost, just a man of flesh and blood, or maybe just the manifestation of Sheriff Bell's fears? Each interpretation can be justified, and has been, vehemently, in various comment sections. He's evil made flesh because he destroys and/or corrupts anything on his path, and the ending can then be interpreted as "evil can be damaged, hindered, but not stopped". He's the Grim Reaper because he simply comes to take people away when their time is up, and doesn't when it isn't, etc. etc.

In the end, all these interpretations are valid, but are they really meaningful? Maybe the Coens* just enjoyed the irony of having Chirgurh, who lets other people's fate be decided by a coin toss, be taken out by chance. Maybe the scene with the two kids is nothing more than a "money corrupts" throwaway, inserting something not necessarily relevant or related to anything else into an already dense text. Then again, there is always something that CAN be connected - in this case, you could invoke the fact that there is literally bloody money being paid with. It's almost as if they're teasing us to make connections, appealing to our need to categorize and analyze, and then reveal that there is nothing but mud at the bottom of the well.

This movie already has been dismissed by some critics (most notably by Manohla Dargis) as pure craft. I don't get that complaint. Yes, the Coen's may be overly fond of stylistic tricks, but they seem to like them so much it's infectious. Yes, they like doorways, they like them A LOT, but why is that a problem when this leads to such wonderful - and sometimes suspenseful- shots? I'm not sure all the mirroring - the shirts, Anton/Ed Tom both drinking milk and watching themselves in the television, etc. - means something, but the various instances are fun to spot.

Much of the discussion on the boards seems to be about plot questions. Did he kill the accountant? (my guess, no, but does it really matter?). Did he kill Carla Jean? (Definitely). Did Llewelyn go along with the beer woman, and what happened to her? And mostly, was Chigurh in that room, and if so, how did he disappear? I don't think, however, that these details were left sketchy because the filmmakers want us to figure out the "solution". I think the details were left sketchy as a Rorschach test: the interpretation we give says something about who are, and where we stand.

The movie opens and ends with something Chigurh does and something Bell says, with Llewelyn stumbling through the movie in between, his fate and perhaps morality the stakes in the contest between the two. Let me end, too, with some words about Sheriff Bell. Tommy Lee Jones truly is one of the treasures of modern American cinema, and the deep grooves of his tired face serve this character well. He seems a straightforward good guy at first, white hat and all, a remnant of better, more straight-forward times. However, unlike the Western heroes he's meant to remind us of, he isn't sure he's up to the task, and he's scared. His big triumph is opening the door to that motel where Chigurh might be, but his relief when the room is empty is so great he decides to retire. Decides to wait for his time to be up in peace.

So much more can be said about this movie, but I think I will stop at this: I'm not sure yet if this is a masterpiece, but I do think this is a marvelous film, satisfying and challenging both on a visceral, and aesthetic, and an intellectual level. A film I look forward to revisiting in February on the big screen.

*I know, McCarthy should probably get a lot of the credit here, but I haven't read the book so I'm analyzing the film purely by itself, and seeing everything as the Coen's choice


Also, if you're up for something a little less serious, there's always Nora Ephron.


cjKennedy said...

Where to begin. I never know where to start or where to end...

First off, thanks for the link!

Second, I'm happy you're embracing the fact you can't quite pin this film down and seeing it as evidence of it's brilliance.

The facts of the movie I am absolutely certain of:


Carla Jean is a goner. Llewelyn is a goner. He did not fool around with the pool lady, but she got caught in the crossfire. Chigurh was not behind the door. He did get the money.

***End Spoilers***

Though I'm sure of what happened, I'm still not sure of what it all adds up to and that's ok. I still haven't gotten tired of thinking about it. Movies don't do that to me very often.

I read the book after seeing the movie for the third time. They are remarkably similar. The boys did an amazing job of stripping it down to the essential detail while still keeping everything that was important.

Much of the dialogue was McCarthy's, but it's amazing how well it fit the Coen style. There were naturally more details in the book and the scenes were given more room to breathe, but it was an amazingly faithful adaptation.

The weird thing is that I resisted reading what other people were saying about it for a long time. Until well after I wrote my own review. I finally read MZS's interesting but eliptical take and I read some of what Glenn Kenney had to say. I have yet to read Manohla. I'm saddened she didn't like it because I've like her since her days at the LA Weekly and LA Times.

Anyway, I almost feel posessive of the movie and I don't want other people's opinions crowding out my own. I want it all for myself. I'm not sure why. It feels like it's MY movie.

What's funny about the ending is that people are disappointed in it as though it leaves questions unanswered, but it really doesn't. Everyone's fate is pretty much decided, but people are unhappy because it doesn't turn out the way they want. **Spoilers** the sheriff doesn't save the day, and that's one of the main points of the film. The force of good doesn't live up to his promise. Neither does the imperfect 'man' Llewelyn. The only one who does what he says he's going to do is the 'bad' Chigurh. Yes I just drew a parallel there between NCfOM and The Good The Bad and The Ugly. I don't know if it holds water, but I couldn't resist.

Anyway, not only does Ed Tom not save the day, the badness all happens off screen. The audience is denied the usual release of a crime thriller at every turn. And the movie was so good at building up to it, it's quite a slap in the face.

But, this ending leaves you thinking. A more satisfying ending I think would've been enjoyable but quickly forgotten.

Anyway. For a while there I was on the verge of elevating There Will Be Blood to my favorite movie of the year, but No Country is back on top. I love this movie. I love this whole movie year.

Hedwig said...

Yes, this is quite an amazing year we're having, isn't it? I'm having a really hard time deciding which film from my preliminary top 5 I'm going to have to bump for NCfOM, and I haven't even seen There Will Be Blood yet.

Also, on the "the Good, the Bad and the Ugly" comparison, I've been thinking about it too, but there's one rather big difference: while the three protagonists in that movie are constantly interacting, the three here don't ever even share the screen. They interact, but indirectly: through a wall, a phone line, and most importantly, through following each other's footsteps.


In my interpretation,it's not even Chigurh who kills Llewelyn, but the Mexicans


They are reflections of each other, in a way, especially in the beginning where we see first Llewelyn, then Chigurh, and finally the sheriff go through the same locations, looking for what the other(s) left behind.

Most of all, this is a movie I keep thinking about, and you're absolutely right that this ending is much better and memorable than a simpler, more satisfying one would have been.