movie film review | chris tookey

No Country for Old Men

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  No Country for Old Men Review
Tookey's Rating
5 /10
Average Rating
8.49 /10
Sheriff Bell: Tommy Lee Jones , Llewelyn Moss: Josh Brolin
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Directed by: Ethan, Joel Coen
Written by: Joel and Ethan Coen Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy

Released: 2008
Origin: US
Length: 123

The Coen Brothers’ latest blood-soaked extravaganza, based on a remarkably grim novel by Cormac McCarthy, arrives garlanded with critical praise, and I can see why. It has suspenseful direction, terrific acting and gloriously atmospheric landscapes by the British cinematographer Roger Deakins, who’s the best in the business. But I can also appreciate why most people will find it underwhelming. Its merits don’t add up to a coherent motion picture. It’s a flawed piece of storytelling, with massive plot-holes, poorly developed characters and one of the lousiest endings in cinema history.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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It can’t make up its mind who we’re rooting for. At the start and finish, it appears to be Sheriff Bell, an old-timer law-enforcer played by the grizzled Tommy Lee Jones. He’s on the verge of retirement, disillusioned by the amount of sheer evil in the world. It’s his narration we hear at the start, and his account of a dream that we hear at the end. And it’s his laconic wit that we laugh at – when we can understand what he is saying.

For instance, his deputy looks at the corpses strewn around at a drug deal gone wrong and says “Ain’t it a mess?” And Tommy Lee drawls “Or if it ain’t, it’ll do until the mess gits here.”But in between, Tommy Lee doesn’t do much, except arrive at one crime scene and then arrive too late to prevent another. In other words, he’s a passive observer. And he never undergoes any character development. He’s wise and melancholic throughout.

So maybe the protagonist is Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), the poor Vietnam veteran who first comes across the drug deal massacre and discovers a briefcase containing two million dollars. From then on, he’s the target for the owner of the money, a lank-haired killer with a cattle boltgun (Javier Bardem, pictured) whose purpose is to hunt him down, killing some people because they get in his way, and others just because he feels like it.

The parts of the movie that work best are ones where Brolin stubbornly attempts to outwit this psychopath, and the tension generated in these sequences brings back memories of Hitchcock’s thriller heyday. Everything builds towards the inevitable confrontation between Brolin and Bardem, except that the Coen brothers appear to lose interest in good ol’ Llewelyn, and the climax to his story occurs offscreen. Ironic? Perhaps, but it’s also perversely unsatisfying. So no, he can’t be the protagonist either.

Perhaps the protagonist is the Hannibal Lecterish anti-hero, another implacable serial-killer with a terrifying smile, eloquently underplayed by Bardem in a scary, Prince Valiant haircut. The trouble with him is that he has no real character, or back story: he is merely wickedness personified. Any notion that he is real is dispelled by the fact that he is obviously known to the law – a bounty hunter who’s after him (played with greasy charm by Woody Harrelson) even knows his name – and yet he never seems to be chased by police, even after he has murdered one of them in the opening reel. He’s meant to represent Death or implacable Evil. He certainly isn’t human.

So the film doesn’t have a viable protagonist. Perhaps this is a deliberate attempt by the Coens to subvert narrative convention; but if so, it’s hard to see the point of their doing so, except in order to annoy the audience.

Nor does their film have anything so downmarket as an ending. When the lights go up, there is an unmistakable sense of anti-climax. Perhaps this is intended as a rebuke to those who seek a feelgood ending, but really it’s a slap in the face for an audience hoping for any kind of resolution. Finishing the movie on an abstruse and inconsequential account of someone’s dream is exactly what it appears, a cop-out.

On a deeper level, the film doesn’t work because the story fails to dramatise its theme - or live up to its portentous title. The central idea is that civilisation is a veneer that is always threatening to split away, revealing the inhumanity beneath. It’s this concept that lies beneath Tommy Lee Jones’ opening reminiscence of a 14 year-old boy killing his girl-friend:

“Papers said it was a crime of passion but he told me there wasn't any passion to it. Told me that he'd been planning to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. Said that if they turned him out he'd do it again. Said he knew he was going to hell. Be there in about fifteen minutes. I don't know what to make of that. I surely don't.”

It’s a chilling account, but the film that follows portrays a bad guy who’s so implacable, evil and powerful that he doesn’t convince as human. And the people he kills may be flawed, but they are mostly likeable and, to a lesser or greater degree, civilised. So what’s the Coens’ point: that bad will always conquer good? If so, they don’t even begin to prove their theory. And the survival of at least one good guy would seem to disprove it.

There’s always been something in the Coen brothers’ output that I’ve found off-putting, and I think it’s their coldness, which some would describe as cool. Most of their movies have seemed condescending to ordinary folk, and one reason that Fargo works better than the rest of their movies is that it has a protagonist in Frances McDormand’s cop who supplies a warmth and moral centre generally missing from their output.

Tommy Lee Jones fulfils a similar function here, but he’s not on screen for long, and the Coens seem much more in love with their macho villain, Javier Bardem. They clearly admire his cool as he terrorizes some hapless yokel with his superior intellect, or patches himself up stoically after receiving a gunshot wound. Like Tarantino, they are undone by an adolescent appetite for gore and ruthlessness.

Like the fat boy in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, they “wants to make your flesh creep”. They spend so much time rejoicing in the creepy, and chuckling cynically at evil, that neither they – nor, I fear, their fans – seem to notice that their movies are too often soulless and superficial. No Country For Old Men, unfortunately, follows that over-familiar pattern. It’s no movie for newcomers to the Coen Brothers, or indeed the masses.

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