No Country for Old Men, a Coen brothers film, had excellent reviews. I didn’t read any of them in depth, but just heard that it was a great film.
I watched it the other night and can thoroughly not recommend it. It is extremely violent, and presents one of cinemas most loathsome villains (pictured here) Anton Chiguhr, played by Javier Bardem .
I don’t mind baddies in movies, and I don’t think violence on screen is the worst thing in the world. What I am more interested in is the moral tone of the film, and the kind of moral universe the picture creates. Martin Scorcese’s films, for instance, often feature graphic violence. He shows us horrible specimens of humanity and the blood splatters in his movies, like it does in this one.
But Scorcese believes in a moral universe, and his baddies eventually get what is coming to them. In No Country for Old Men there is no moral universe. A lone hunter discovers bodies in the desert. A drugs deal has gone haywire. One guy gets away with the money, but the hunter finds him dead as well, and takes the loot. He’s the only one we root for at all, but we realize that he’s a thief too. He goes on the run and Anton Chiguhr sets out to find him–murdering everyone in his path.
Not only is Chiguhr not caught, but the only person who might catch him–the sheriff (played by Tommy Lee Jones) can’t be bothered. He sits around philosophizing, reading the paper and waiting for the feds to do something. In the end its the psychopath who walks into the sunset a free man. Furthermore, most of Chiguhr’s victims either don’t suspect that they’re about to be killed, or they submit to their fate without a fight.
No Country for Old Men is a deeply amoral film, and apart from its beautiful direction, fine acting and cinematography, it’s only redeeming feature is that it shows us the nightmare, hellish world of violence, murder and despair that results when morality and a God of justice has ceased to exist.
Father,Here are a few review essays that might change your mind:Carson Holloway’s at ISI’s First Principles: No Country for Old Men: Demonic Evil and the Limits of TraditionAt Godspy: Joseph Prever: All That DarkAnd, finally, from the Grub Street Grackle:Surprise EndingThe Flip Side of the Coin: Learning the Native Tongue of No CountryThe Way of the Coin: The Unexpected Guest Revisited
I would even say that the direction and cinematography were nothing to speak of, at least in any artistic sense. Yes, they do create almost unbearable tension with their expert direction, but what does it ultimately do? It’s pure excercise, going along a single bare thread.The test of the filmmaker I would say, is how he deals with complexity, and how he simplifies it, how he brings all of it in and harnesses it. Here though, we have the most simplistic of stories, and the direction doesn’t do anything but negate, on top of the already simplistic story; literally, everything in this film is negated somehow, from characterization to the pinnacle of the story itself. Which you get at in the review.The thing that bothered me most when this film came out, and after I saw it, was the praise of its “restraint” and its pared-down impeccable direction. I’m bothered when this sort of tunnel-vision as displayed in the film is hailed as artistically masterful.This is my view of it: The Coens have this mastery of film that is too adroit, too able. They don’t seem to care enough to ‘cease caring’ about the ‘finished product’. Because that is what the artist must at some point do: he must come to the reality, the mystery of what he is doing/subcreating so much that the concern over the end result must, in a certain sense, be disarmed.I believe there’s a Chesterton quote somewhere that refers to this. And I’m too lazy.Oh yeah, the film is also rather ridiculous. Like the most psychopathic killer would lug around that pressurized air canister. Like a sheriff with what, 20, 30 years beneath his belt would need to be told by cat-man that worrying about what you can’t control is vanity. Gee, thanks, cat-man.And Catholic/Christian views into the film that try and tell us how it depicts a world without grace and how that teaches us…blah blah blah. I couldn’t give a darn about it.
Stilwell: read the article at First Principles. It might change your mind. It did change mine; my first impression of this film was about the same as yours and Fr. Longenecker’s. Holloway convinced me, though. There’s more there than appears at first glance.
Interesting and seems to make a good (if laboured) case, but it doesn’t convince me. Not quite.First, the article has a howler: It says that Moss doesn’t have an affair when presented with the opportunity, thus proving his virtue and fidelity to his wife, and also proving that his taking of the money has a somewhat selfless motive. Maybe the reviewer had a case of wishful thinking. Because Moss does have the affair. That’s how he gets killed. By stopping his getaway and shacking with the woman by the pool. They both get killed.Second, I don’t consider myself “a conservative”, especially one who needs convincing about the apparent meaning behind a film’s apparent nihilism and violence. I have no problem with graphic depictions of violence when it’s done the right way (one of my favourite films is Apocalypto) and I’m open to films that use “negative capability” to convince of the good (think Children of Men). I’m well aware of the intended, or otherwise, meanings of No Country for Old Men.The fact is, I think both in the film are done badly – not just badly, but nihilistically. The “message” and meanings to be gleaned from the film may not be nihilistic per say, but they are given to us in a nihilistic manner. And so, in the context of the film, it’s messages and meanings are nihilistic. That is to say, they are annihilated. The film is a contradiction in terms, hence the bad taste in the mouth towards the ending of the film and after its ending (just like Mystic River).The reviewer writes:”No Country for Old Men, then, offers a lesson in the limits of mere traditionalism. While respecting adherence to noble traditions, it nevertheless suggests that such traditions alone, without an active faith in God, cannot finally sustain men in dedication to their duties.”It’s good that the reviewer has sufficient faith to come to this conclusion. I found the film insufficiently condescending to “noble traditions”; as well as condescending to free will. The good guys merely fart around talking about how incomprehensible all this evil is, and how helpless one is in the face of it. The ‘good guys’ are as banal as Chigurh.Thus the film is no tragedy (nice try, but no cigar) because there is nothing there for us to register as tragic. The review says it is Bell’s failure that is the tragedy, but the film poses his failure not at all in the context of free will but in the context of blind immovable force and chance.If the reviewer wants to paint a profound picture over what is nothing much more than an abyss, all the best to him.And then, getting back somewhat to what I said before, there is the film’s overall tone, which is in many respects the message, meaning, and content of the film. As it is for every film. No Country is ridiculous because the film’s somewhat bare yet codified meanings are so puritanically serious that they are disconnected from reality. This gets back to my earlier criticism; namely, that a great film, or any work of art, takes into account all things that amount to a mysterious complexity, and simplifies it, harrows it. No Country has no concern with that whatsoever. It is not concerned with those inconvenient anomalies that disrupt the intellectually conceived stream of thought of how things really are and operate. The film is, paradoxically, easy game, and not challenging whatsoever.
Paul, I like your point about banality. In the end, the film is banal, and that–most of all–makes it’s nihilistic point.
Fr,I was also dissapointed with the movie. I think you have to be a total cinema geek to get into it, as you have to be interested in totally unusual plot devices. Many rules of story telling, starting with protagonist/antagonist are broken in this film. It holds the viewers attention but leaves them deeply unsatisfied and mildly creeped out. That’s why pro writers and cinema geeks were so big on the movie IMHO. Also you’ve got to admit that Anton’s role was super difficult to pull off, and the actor playing him did a great job with it. Anton is the actual central character in the story, but you never figure that out during the movie because you keep waiting for the epic good vs evil battle.I think that Anton is supposed to be a metaphor for an unstoppable force. An evil, yes, but in the same way that plague is evil.Note that Anton flips a coin to decide his victims fate because ‘That’s the best I can do for you’. Arguing or pleaing with Anton is like pleaing with smallpox. The best you get, is a roll of the dice. Heads you live, tails you die.So Anton is a virus set upon humans by one another, indiscriminantly killing everyone in his path like a biological weapon. Anton thus, as such, may not be evil per say, but perhaps neutral. A killing machine like a sawed off shotgun or cluster bomb is neutral until someone dispenses them. He is set in motion by the corrupt corporation that orchestrated the drug deal. Once set in motion, he rampages.So what you don’t figure out until much later, (because the plot is so unusual and dense), is that Anton was not the bad guy at all. The story is about the deployment of a biological weapon on the inhabitants of a small town and the destruction cuased by the weapon. It’s about the greed and human frailty/hostility that allows the release of the weapon and that propogates the weapon all the way to Mexico and back, with even the mother-in-law betraying the only ‘good guy’ in the movie.The money is the virus, anything that contacts the sin of the money is contaminated, and Anton eventually descends like an angel of death killing everyone and everything that came into contact with the sin. It’s almost as if the crime scene were the ‘unclean place’ of leviticus and Anton is a beast slouching towards bethlehem.
I am sorry to disagree, but if you read any of Cormac McCarthy’s books, I think the movie makes sense. All of them are bleak. The Road is terribly, terribly bleak. But his method is to hollow out any easy consolation of “the good,” wittle it down to one point and make you way it against the vastness of evil (in the work itself). So in the road, there really appears to be no hope, and the world is left in an apocalyptic tailspin. But the father and son “carry the fire,” and it speaks volumes against the darkness.No Country for Old Men has the same angle, although I hear the book I think pulls it off better than the movie (havn’t read the book yet). I think the entire movie is weighed on the wife’s refusal. “No, I won’t, its just you, you flip the coin.” The question is the determinism of nihilism vs. the refusal to see Anton as simply a force of nature. I know in the book they make more of Anton’s “principles,” as vile as they are. I think the car wreck scene at the end is supposed to point this out to us. If Anton simply died, then we get an easy Catharsis. “Good, bad guys die in the end.” Instead, he does in fact live, but the terror on his face tells us that he knows he is not the deterministic force of nature he tries to make himself out to be in the coin toss. The book again does a better job of making the story ultimately about Tommy Lee Jones’s character, and his moral failings. In the face of evil, he fails becasue the evil is more principled than he is. But again, McCarthy uses an image he will implore even moreso in “The Road.” In his dream, his Dad carries the fire through the wintry mountain pass, and Tommy Lee Jones knows his dad has set up camp in front of him…
and now reading Holloway’s essay, I must say that he says it even better than I do. Its just Cormac McCarthy’s way…I even think in some ways he started out as a somewhat hopeless Nihilist (Blood Meridian is awefully…awful!), but by the Road, there is a definite change. I think “No Country” is a step for McCarthy in “The Road”‘s direction.
Thanks Okie – I had totally missed the wife’s refusal to allow for Anton’s self-image as a force of nature. That does change the movie quite a bit. And the car accident does make Anton mortal.
BTW i saw Vicky Christina Barcelona shortly after No Country. It was bizarre watching Javier Bardem in such a radically different role. He’s a good actor though.I didn’t really care for Barcelona. I’m sure Fr. L would be quite displeased with the nihilistic anti-marriage themes in Barcelona. But that Scarlet Johansen sure is a looker!
Father, my mother frequently sends me links to your blog, which I find to be very good and thought provoking; thank you. But, finally, there is something on which we disagree. When I saw “No Country for Old Men” I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to it than what I initially saw. After watching some of the special features I have a good respect for the movie now and do highly recommend it. I think what is most important to keep in mind is the context this movie is given: the title itself (old men is represented by Tommy Lee Jones), the opening monologue and the closing monologue (both given by Tommy Lee Jones). The movie is about the Sheriff (he is the central character according to the Coen Brothers, a point I completely missed when I watched the movie) and his experience of the changing world. He has been a sheriff for at least 30 years from the age of 25. Since the movie is set in 1980 he first became sheriff no later than 1950. The county of which he is the sheriff and that he grew up in is very sparsely populated and extremely quiet, a place where not much happens. He remembers a time when carrying a gun all the time wasn’t necessary and extreme violent crimes were extremely rare. I think the scene at the beginning when the old man is pulled over by Anton illustrates the time and mind set of the people very well. The old man is confused because he’s pulled over by a sheriff’s car, but the person isn’t dressed like an officer. People posing as policemen just didn’t happen at that time and earlier in a place like that. This is the context in which the sheriff has lived in. Now he is confronted with the extreme violence of the drug trade associated with the explosion of cocaine use in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I didn’t find the movie to be nihilistic at all (and I am extemely sensitive to nihilism). Instead, despite by being born in ’79, I found that I related to it in a very personal way. I long for the time, of which I had the smallest taste of and certainly do not experience now, when neighborhoods were communities, when doors didn’t have to be locked, when kids could go running around town unattended and there was no need to worry about them, etc. etc. etc. The question that most often comes to mind when I am with my grandparents or any other elderly people is “What is it like to see all the changes that you have seen and experienced?” I believe that “No Country for Old Men” gives us a picture of this. Please consider the movie again in the context of the monologues which bookend it and with the knowledge that the Sheriff is not an inept philosopher, but a man who is seeing the world he knows and loves falling away, and knows that he can’t do anything about it. But the fact that he tries to and that his focus isn’t catching the drug dealers, but trying to save Josh Brolin’s character is an amazing testimony to his goodness and strength in the face of such bleak evil.
No Country for Old MenFirst viewing: film no goodSecond viewing: film very goodWe can’t help seeing it as post-Christian. But it strikes me on second look more as pre-Christian. Morality not disentangled from the evil which makes it seem futile. Like how might good (not) appear among the barbarians who never heard the good spell. (But I say, have they not heard?) This story (like other and better ones) provisionally prescinding from actual or hypothetical Solution to evil, not declaring Victory, not denying that such there might be, but its acheivement opaque to man unlike impending doom (e.g., Ragnorak). The good news is thus remote, unspoken in its literal import, but dimly voiced in the weak but beautiful speech of a man whose dream might be a glimmering nothing or might be a harbinger of hope, the hope like a torch barely carried throughout generations not knowing Christ (nor, indeed, Moses) through the pass in the bleak and ancient Mountains, down into … This kind of thing is not merely contrived, having been, in that day before the day when the bodies of barbarians were broken and the Witch-king passed on, his end unimagined, not depicted, save by vague prophecy.
I haven’t seen this movie yet and so I am not reading the links or many of the messages here, because I find that Coen Brothers movies are frequently misunderstood and I want to see it myself. Most of their films are extremely religious in theme, although they usually disguise the theme so that you think the movie is about something else entirely. Huge numbers of critics hated “The Ladykillers,” for instance, because they thought the original was better. But the Coen Brothers weren’t remaking the movie just to remake it, they used the story as a frame for their own message, a message few of the critics seemed to get (or even recognize was there).So when this movie came out and the reviews were so uniform and positive but indicated something radically different from a typical Coen Brothers movie, I figured that either the critics misunderstood it or that the Coen Brothers decided to ditch their usual method and win an Oscar just to do it. I haven’t watched this one because it really doesn’t appeal to me. But I assume it is not nihilistic, though it may seem that way.