March 29, 2008 1 Comment
Oscar-winner for Best Picture No Country For Old Men is probably the worst, least satisfying Coen Bros. movie that I have seen. (I believe I’ve seen all of the full-length features they’ve directed; this includes The Man Who Wasn’t There, which was pretty interesting at times.) The story seems determined to withold any sort of payoff or satisfaction from the viewer. The main character (the sheriff, played by Tommy Lee Jones) goes through the motions of an interesting character arc, but since he does not interact very much with the actual story our emotional involvement is minimal. The result is bleak, misanthrophic, and anticlimactic. The only impression we’re really left with is that this is “that movie where the guy shoots people with a cattle gun”, which is how I suspect it will be remembered two decades from now (if at all).
Contrasting this with The Big Lebowski, which will still be quoted and watched over and over decades from now, and it’s more than a little bizarre that the latter was considered a failure while No Country is an Oscar Winner.
The story on which the film is based appears to have an interesting theme: as far as I can tell, it is a lament for the loss of honor in the world. It is not clear that the Coen Bros. understood this, however, given how fascinated they seem to have become by playing up and mythologizing the role of the killer character. (Which worked; after all, it got Javier Bardem the Oscar too.) This made for an oddly schizophrenic movie, something mostly indistinguishable from an unstoppable-killer flick with the (much more interesting) sheriff’s personal struggles lurking underneath, trying to get out. This could have been forgivable if the surface storyline of Chigurh chasing Polk had been more interesting or come to any sort of satisfying payoff, but the Coens’ ongoing attraction to nihilistic themes seems to have precluded them from going this route. Instead the Josh Brolin character is dispensed with offscreen (I am still not quite sure who killed him to be honest, and don’t much care) and the money-bag Macguffin that was supposed to be the plot thread holding our interest is tossed aside as a distant memory.
Some fans of the film have praised the dialogue, but in practice the cleverness and wit is few and far between, and indeed the fact that I had already seen all the memorable quotes on the internet basically constitutes its own proof that the movie does not have very many others. We are left with a story about nihilism for nihilism’s sake, and the disappointment caused by the fact that the backbone of the story – honor – is still visible underneath, but in the end, remains undeveloped.
What is noteworthy is that three years ago, Tommy Lee Jones starred (and directed) as a border lawman in another – much better – postmodern Western with similar themes of honor, manhood, and father-son relationships: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. That film, too, contained the dark humor, violence, bleak landscapes against which to set a semi-mythological tale. But it also had a soul, giving us an emotional investment in the characters, and when comparing the final payoffs between the anticlimactic No Country and the surprisingly touching Three Burials, there’s just no comparison. Of course, again, the latter was a failure while the former is an Oscar Winner.
But if I were going to rewatch one of them, I’d love to settle in with The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada anytime. In fact I may just re-order it on Netflix. By contrast, I shall probably never be watching No Country For Old Men again, if I can help it. Life’s too short.