No Country For Old Men Review
Not being someone who puts a great deal of credence by the US Oscars – a huge self-congratulatory backslapping exercise that celebrates accomplished but safe traditional commercial filmmaking and encourages the perpetuation of making movies to an established award-winning formula – I didn’t take a great deal of notice of the Oscar nominations announced this week. A quick check on IMDB reveals however that No Country For Old Men received no less than eight – EIGHT - 2008 Academy Award Nominations. Confirmation, if any were needed, of the sorry state of "serious" mainstream Hollywood film. Is this pointless exercise in empty filmmaking and mindless violence really the best America can offer?
With a sense of style and panache, the Coen Brothers have gotten got away with having nothing in particular to say in the past, but the complete vacuity of No Country For Old Men leads one to reassess whether they have ever really achieved anything of substance. Most successful with comedies, there is no denying the sharpness and wit of the Coens’ scripts, nor their sense of comic timing that harks back to the screwball comedies of Hollywood’s golden era that they so obviously emulate. When it comes to making "serious" films, they seem at somewhat of a loss, relying on ultra-violence and using cinematic devices to carry them through a bare outline of a generic plot – the hat in Miller’s Crossing, the box in Barton Fink. In No Country For Old Men, revisiting their small American communities, we have a bag of stolen money that leads to a chase across the Texas/Mexican border, leaving a wake of dead bodies in its trail.
And there in a sentence you have the entire plot and purpose of No Country For Old Men, a very thin thread which the Coen Brothers follow assiduously and admittedly in a highly accomplished manner. The bag of money is discovered by Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), an ordinary working man who stumbles across the carnage of a drug deal that has gone badly wrong, while out on a hunting trip near the border between Texas and Mexico. Aware that the bad guys are eventually going to come looking for their cash, he sends his wife off to her mother’s and goes on the run, holing up in cheap motels, intent on keeping the money he has discovered. Sure enough the "bad guys" do come calling in the form of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a cold-blooded killing machine who will drive Moss into some difficult corners and force him to make some unthinkable decisions.
No Country For Old Men is loaded with all the familiar elements that are guaranteed to have the Academy falling over themselves to shower it with awards. It’s a film that pays tribute to the heritage of the wide-open spaces of the American heartland immortalised in Westerns and in the films of Ford and Peckinpah and, topically, it alludes to the history of violence that American society is founded upon and suffering the consequences of. Moreover, it has Tommy Lee Jones there to validate its sense of gravitas with a solemnly-intoned voiceover that ponders pessimistically on big existential questions that are uppermost in the mind of many Americans. What happened to the ideals of the past? Where did it all go wrong? Why is the place going all to hell with drugs and shootings? Where is this all going to lead?
Neither Cormac McCarthy whose novel the film is based on, nor the Coens appear to have any idea. In interviews, the brothers have revealed that they don’t even necessarily agree with the sentiments of the book. For them, No Country For Old Men seems to be nothing more than an exercise in filmmaking, one moreover that, built entirely on a standard sensationalised action thriller, only adds to the sense of moral (and cinematic) degradation with thrills and spills that rely entirely on gratuitous splatter and carnage, on making the viewer wince uncomfortably at gunshot being drawn out of open wounds, of needles being injected into sensitive body parts, at blood flowing across floorboards and the shock effect of the calm, unflinching and immune-to-entreaty manner in which Bardem executes simple, decent, honest, trusting country folk minding their own business or just being downright neighbourly.
There’s no doubt that No Country For Old Men raises relevant issues with regards to the omnipresence of guns and the manner in which they are employed in a modern American society that no longer upholds the old values and is instead driven by greed. The image of hunting in the first scene of the film slipping into the discovery of the aftermath of a drug deal emphasise this theme - but the back story of Sheriff Bell’s disillusionment, looking back more at the past than at the current investigation and discovering that the past may not have been really any better, is largely glossed over, as are points in McCarthy’s original novel on the legacy of the 1914-18 war. There is however some sense of the Coens holding back, not making everything explicit and overly spelt-out – the failed drug deal for example would normally be handled in a more direct explosive manner – but considering the lack of restraint elsewhere in the film, the feeling is rather that the filmmakers are only seeking to provide a brief moment of respite from the otherwise relentless trail of gunfights and executions that make up the bulk of the film, with an opportunistic filmmakers’ eye for cinematic balance and gravitas it will bestow on the film (particularly with the low-key, pessimistic ending), rather than from any sense of delicacy.
Presenting the underlying questions in such a manner that allows the filmmakers to neatly sidestep any sense of moral complexity, Bardem’s Chigurh effectively becomes The Terminator – a cold-blooded killing machine with no conscience and only one purpose. It’s a sorry affair to see that American cinema has no better challenge for one of the world’s greatest actors than to place them in a role that could have been just as effectively filled by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Terminator at least made no pretensions of sincerity of purpose to justify its action thrills, and in terms of predicting what lies in the unhuman/inhumane future of a society that pays little heed to the present, James Cameron’s science-fiction adventure and Arnie’s 'I’ll Be Back' actually have a more meaningful message to put across than the conscience-free manner with which the Coens gratuitously execute their characters under the vacuous slogan of 'You Can’t Stop What’s Coming'.