No Country for Old Men (film)

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by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen (2007)
Esthetic Emptiness Celebrated by the Coens   (a slapdash review)

A riveting drama, extremely brutal and at the same time highly artistic. Still, it leaves you with an *empty* feeling; there seems to be no redeeming background to the story, unlike in the Coen Brothers masterpieces _Fargo_ and _O Brother, Where Art Thou?_ -- despite the policeman and wife being *superficially* similar to the policewoman and her husband in _Fargo_ (in reversed mode, so to say).

This movie has superb performances, one of them for the ages: that of Javier Bardem as an insane (or insanely logical and methodical) psychopathic killer. Woody Harrelson gives a great performance, too, however; as do Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin and Kelly Macdonald.

The direction is perfect. Every shot counts; every muscle on the faces of all the actors moves exactly the way it should, following the directors' vision; the actors' enunciation is 100% perfect, and the dialogues, frequently minimalistic, are flawless. This is supreme cinematography in the *technical* sense of the word; the shots are wonderfully composed, with an artistic touch -- no matter the gory subject matter they frequently depict.

The movie's music & sounds are minimalistic; that is exactly right for what the movie strives to convey. The early 1980s period is faithfully and beautifully recreated: dress modes, hair-styles, cars. Although, just as the rest of the movie attempts to avoid genre clichés, so do the film-makers here avoid the usual crutch of playing pop music from the early 1980s in order to set the time period. In fact, the movie is astoundingly minimalistic and effective in its reduced use of non-1980s music and ambient sounds.

Delightful, authentic Texas accent can be heard throughout the movie, remindful of another delightfully dialectal thriller: Billy Bob Thornton's _Sling Blade_ (though the latter's overall quality is superior to the Coen Brothers movie). The accent is believable even though, unlike Lee Jones and Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald is anything but a Texas-born actress, hailing from Scotland!

Just as the Coen Brothers' much earlier _Blood Simple_, _No Country for Old Men_ reminds you of Dashiell Hammett's writings, yet this movie lacks Hammett's ethos of a positive hero (such as the "Continental Op") capable of rising above the dreary circumstances of the world surrounding him. _No Country for Old Men_ reminds you of Shakespeare's _Hamlet_, too, and *shares* its emptiness; the meaningless heaping of corpses -- "I got here the same way as this coin did", says the killer, and through this the movie suggests as if there were no deeper sense to life, no order, no logic; life is haphazard and meaningless -- that seems to be the film's number 1 message.

This movie may therefore be summed up as "esthetic emptiness". _No Country for Old Men_ revels in emptiness, and is a celebration of emptiness. You can see directors having great fun depicting emptiness, always using filmmakers' devices and tools that possess the highest imaginable esthetic value. The question is, however: do we truly watch movies in order to see ugly things depicted beautifully? With *negligible* redeeming value to offset all the ugliness and emptiness? _No Country for Old Men_ will thus appeal primarily to viewers who hold human life to be essentially an ugly, empty, chaotic, and meaningless affair; that should be much the same audience as that applauding Shakespeare's _Hamlet_ and its own heaping of corpses for no apparent reason. In fact, Anton Chigurh in his nonsensical ruminations on life and chance resembles the character of Hamlet, despite Chigurh being a psychopath and Hamlet not. The essential difference between _No Country for Old Men_ and _Hamlet_ is that the former's esthetic values seem incomparably higher; that alone, however, does not render the movie any less empty than it is.

Take away the truly unforgettable character of Anton Chigurh and all scenes involving him -- and you are left with essentially a mediocre thriller with all the other characters that do not seem memorable. Therefore, Anton Chigurh, impeccably portrayed by Javier Bardem, saves the day for the directors and the movie itself. Anton Chigurh makes Hannibal Lecter look like a benign, old-fashioned and *fictional* character, while striking the viewers as chillingly realistic in his perverse logic as displayed in this movie. The moments when various, frequently minor, characters are unfortunate enough to encounter Chigurh, and are just about to get killed -- or not! -- are laden with tension; they are masterfully shot and acted. An effective device of the film-makers is blocking the view to the actual killings more than once, and choosing ellipse, or suggestion, instead of showing every execution Chigurh performs. There are wonderful little scenes: the elderly gas station owner; the middle-aged fat lady with her courageous -- if only she knew that that's what it was -- "Did - you - not - hear - me, young man?". In this regard, Woody Harrelson is especially admirable, perfectly capturing his character's final scenes; equally great is Kelly MacDonald's portrayal of emotional upheaval during her encounter with the killer.

Both of the "coin-flip" scenes are brilliant; both end with a powerful punchline. The later is, "I got here the same way this coin did." -- which, of course, is ultimately difficult to dispute. The first dialogue closes with Chigurh's meaningful and menacing: "Don't put that coin away with the others... It might make you think it's a coin like any other." And then, with a wicked smile, he adds: "Which it is!" That is a great way of showing to what perverse lengths infallible human logic can be abused; there is nothing human in thinking strictly logically; that is machine-like, and can be abused in any way just as any machine can be manipulated arbitrarily. For human qualities to surface, there needs to be something more than logic; and that is precisely what Chigurh lacks, of course.

The Oscars and other awards being heaped on _No Country for Old Men_ can be seen as belated recognition for the Coen Brothers for what was due to them a lot earlier: I find _Fargo_ to be clearly superior over _No Country for Old Men_; _Fargo_ has a more engaging heroine than the latter movie's aging sheriff; the heroine's husband is more involved in the plot, and is a full-fledged character, despite being a minor character, in _Fargo_ -- whereas the sheriff's wife, in the brief seconds in which she appears in the movie, is a mere prop. The female element is a lot stonger in _Fargo_ than it is in _No Country for Old Men_, thus making _Fargo_ a more ballanced viewing exprience; _No Country for Old Men_ decidedly strikes you as a "male / macho" movie. _Fargo_ is brilliant in combining comedy with brutality -- in contrast, _No Country for Old Men_ is sheer terror from start to finish; oh yes, it has its comedic qualities, but it is definitely terror *thinly* overlayed with humor, or with humor merely lurking in the background of all the terror; the terror decidedly takes center stage in _No Country for Old Men_ -- whereas in _Fargo_, terror and humor may be said to be equally balanced. Witness also the warm, romantic, and funny dialog between _Fargo_'s heroine and her former classmate who adores her; there is no comparable scene in _No Country for Old Men_. Yes, *technically* speaking, the esthetic values and cinematic virtuosity are higher in _No Country for Old Men_ than they are in _Fargo_; such formal and technical aspects, however, are not enough to make _No Country for Old Men_ an equal of _Fargo_, let alone raise it above it.

Rating: Image:B-m.gif (= B- on a scale of A+ to F-)
--Faterson 06:14, 14 April 2008 (CEST)
[writing time approx. 1 hour on previous day]
[abridged version of this review also posted in IMDb's comments section for No Country for Old Men]

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