Saturday, January 05, 2008

No Country for Old Men Terrible

I went to the worst movie last night called No Country for Old Men from a Cormac McCarthy novel by the same novel. The film starts with a horror show as a young antelope hunter Vietnam veteran stumbles on a drug deal gone wrong and a bunch of dead bodies near the Texas-Mexican border and runs off with $2 million dollars. He is trailed by a psychopathic killer and a philosophizing sheriff. That's basically the plot.

About half way through I figured out that the killer played by Javier Bardem was the Angel of Death or the Force of Evil, and about that point I thought the film was truly silly and didn't take it seriously. The sherriff philosophizes how THINGS HAVE GONE TO HELL NOW. The sheriff's musings made the film sillier. Why are things worse now? If the sheriff believs things are bad now, he should live a hundred years ago when life was much worse. I don't buy the baloney that things are much worse now.

I just read William Kennedy's novel Quinn's Book, a quite good tale about a poor Irish orphan growing up in 1850 Americas seeing the famine Irish coming in NY and these poor starving people being force out of Albany, New York. Compared to the famine Irish, people in No Country for Old Men are quite prosperous, stay in motels with TVs, and drive around in nifty big shiny American cars. Like McCarthy's hero the Vietnam veteran, some people now just want a lot more like $2 million which gets them in a lot of trouble. If I had stumbled on a bunch of dead bodies and $2 million, I'd leave and call the sherriff--no novel, no film. Sorrrry.

Cormac McCarthy seems to be writing right-wing rants in his novels about HOW THINGS HAVE GONE TO HELL. Like most right-wingers, he uses the violence of the drug trade in the 1980s and 1990s as his evidence, without looking the deindustrialization of the U.S. during that period and the desperation of unemployed that fed the increased drug usage. So without looking at the wider sociological and political reasons for the drug trade, he just opportunistically appropriates it for a violent and quite meaningless and quite silly story. Anyway, I recommend avoiding the films. It's a downer anyway that revels in gratuitous violence.

After writing this, I read online James Wood's article "Red Planet' in January 5, 2008, New Yorker where he criticizes both the film and McCarthy's original novel. Wood says the novel imitates the narrative of pulp thrillers and action film. Then this bad novel was made into an action film which Wood says has moral hollowness and can not give its "violence any depth, context or reality." I heartily agree, and now understand why I thought the film so silly: halfway through the violence, lacking any context, seem like violence in a child's cartoon. Bam, I threaten you. But the Coen brothers and McCarthy load up the film with cartoon violence and absurd philosophizing as if Popeye the Sailor Man was musing about the world.

Avoid the film. Ignore the novel.


Unknown said...

By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

With "No Country for Old Men," the Coen brothers drop the mask. They've put violence on screen before, lots of it, but not like this. Not anything like this.

The story of stolen drug money and the horrific carnage it precipitates, "No Country for Old Men" doesn't celebrate or smile at violence, it despairs of it, despairs of its randomness, pervasiveness, its inescapable nature, of the way it eats at the soul of society and the individuals in it.

An intense, nihilistic thriller as well as a model of implacable storytelling, this is a film you can't stop watching even though you very much wish you could. That's because "No Country" escorts you through a world so pitilessly bleak, "you put your soul at hazard," as one character says, to be part of it.

That would be Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a third-generation West Texas lawman who has to worry about Llewelyn Moss, a local man who absconded with $2.4 million in drug cash, and Anton Chigurh, a psychotic killing machine with a peculiar moral compass that's as hard to decipher as his accent. Or his haircut. With Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem doing the honors, respectively, this is definitely acting to write home about.

"No Country" is also all you could hope for in a marriage between the brothers (Ethan and Joel share writing, directing and producing credit this time around) and Cormac McCarthy, who wrote a novel so blistering it's actually more hopeless than the film.

Although only the spawn of the Marquis de Sade would consider this harrowing, uncompromisingly violent film a comedy, the Coens have understood the potential for acid humor in the dialogue and even added an unexpected comic moment or two, like a cheerful norteƱo band waking a seriously wounded man.

And although they've been making gleeful films about violence since 1984's "Blood Simple," it took McCarthy's measured, apocalyptic novel to provide the Coens with the opportunity to say something serious about situations they've largely joked about before.

The Coens were impressed enough with McCarthy's intense prose (he won the Pulitzer Prize for "The Road") and his great gift for vernacular speech to transfer major chunks of his dialogue from the page to the screen. They also put their decades of experience at the service of creating a measured, classic tone that provides the ideal vehicle for conveying the constant chaos of the plot.

Much of the film, pointedly set in 1980 when the border drug traffic was just heating up, was shot in New Mexico by the Coens' long-time cinematographer, Roger Deakins. Essential atmospheric exteriors, however, were shot in West Texas at the insistence of costar Jones, a native of the Lone Star state. "He yelled at us that [New Mexico] would be a mistake," Ethan Coen said at the film's Cannes debut. "So it wasn't all principle, it was partially browbeating."

Just as the picture demanded those West Texas exteriors, the role of Ed Tom Bell demanded Jones, who gives one of the great performances of his career as the overmatched lawman who says, "The crime you see now, it's hard to take its measure."

Though the Coens liked the idea of Jones' tartness in the good-guy role ("We had a horror of sentimentality, we didn't want Grandpa Charlie Weaver," said Ethan), both the filmmakers and the actor worried that his taking on this part was too obvious a pick. In truth, however, it's hard to think of anyone who could've brought McCarthy's impeccable ear for regional speech so convincingly to the screen. When the sheriff's deputy says, 'It's a mess, ain't it?," it's pure pleasure to hear Jones handle the rejoinder -- "If it ain't, it'll do until the mess gets here" -- with trademark aplomb.

One of the subversive conceits of "No Country" is that, for all Sheriff Bell's experience and skill, he is more of a passive character than an active one, functioning as a kind of Greek chorus who comments on and contextualizes the action rather than being at the heart of it.

The person at the dangerous center of things is Llewelyn Moss, who comes across that drug cash while out hunting and makes it his own. Smart, wary, laconic and resourceful, Llewelyn thinks of himself, his wife Carla Jean says, as capable of "taking on all comers." Despite some heady competition, the supple and ever-surprising Brolin gives what will surely be a career-making charismatic performance.

What Llewelyn doesn't count on is the nature of the man coming after him. With a sickly vampire's complexion, an unpronounceable name and an inexplicable Buster Brown hairdo, Anton Chigurh is literally a person who would as soon kill you as look at you. With a compressed-air slaughterhouse stun gun as his weapon of choice, Chigurh, played by the chillingly effective Bardem, is the key reason so much graphic blood is spilled on screen.

Though these three men gather the most attention, "No Country" has many other strong performances, including Gene Jones, Beth Grant and Kathy Lamkin in small but memorable roles. Especially noteworthy is Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald, letter perfect as Llewelyn's West Texas wife Carla Jean, a situation so unexpected that the Coens, intent on casting regionally, only saw her because casting director Ellen Chenoweth insisted.

No one should go into "No Country for Old Men" underestimating the unnerving intensity of its moments of on-screen violence, its parade of corpses and geysers of spurting blood. But as the story unfolds with the awful inevitability of a modern myth, it's clear that the Coen brothers and McCarthy are not interested in violence for its own sake but for what it says about the world we happen to live in. "I got it under control," a confident deputy says, and in moments he is dead. He didn't have anywhere near the mastery he imagined, and in this truly despairing vision, neither does anyone else.

Unknown said...

Dear Mr California Writer,

It appears you are an idiot (or, at the very least, confused)

You seem to have missed the point of the film....

In particular, it seems that you completely missed the scene where the sheriff's uncle tells him that all this violence is nothing new and that it's (as you stated in your rant) been going on for centuries.

Also, maybe you should go out and buy yourself a political compass. You describe Cormac McCarthy as right-wing and then end your review "instructing" people not to see the film and to avoid the novel.

I've had arguments with right-wingers in my time and you are obviously not one. You are simply a fool.

P.S. Go out and buy yourself a spell-check too!

Rip Rense said...

I agree with you about this. Thank you for the warning. I like the Coen brothers, as a rule, but I no longer see any excuse for depicting mayhem in motion pictures. It's deeply disturbing that so-called "graphic violence" is taken for entertainment, no matter what the rationale for including it. It is unnecessary, destructive. ---Rip Rense

Anonymous said...

Congratulations -- Your post is the least informed, short sighted, and moronic I've come across today. Note: Yours is the 353rd I've read today, so it's pretty impressive.

The Professor said...

I agree with Cris that California Writer completely misses the point of NCFOM. It is not that THINGS HAVE NOW GONE TO HELL.


It is that the Tommy Lee Jones character, the "old man" of the film's title, no longer is willing to risk his life and retirement to bring the likes of the Javier Bardem character to justice. Jones character sees the grate off of the HVAC duct at the motel, and he knows that Bardem is probably lurking next door. But he walks away. And the Coens offer clarification when the Jones character visits his uncle in the "confusing" final 20 minutes of the movie (which is only "confusing" if the viewer is as dense as California Writer).

NCFOM is a modern classic, and it is well-deserving of its best picture Oscar. My only knocks on it are a couple of script/editing items. First, when Bardem goes into the gas station and does the coin flip, he should come back that night and bump off the guy's wife or something. Second, the sunbather scene at the El Paso motel could have been axed. The film was a bit too long on the run time. We already know that the Brolin character is devoted to his wife. What other point does that scene serve in the arc?

Unknown said...

I just watched "No Country for Old Men" yesterday and agree it is a terrible movie, tho' I usually like the Coen Bros work.

Since it won an Oscar for best picture, I forced myself to sit through this tedious, boring movie.

Marlene Detierro said...

Cormac McCarthy is one of our national treasures. I don't know him, but I can only hope he's a salty personality who gives up his wisdom through the Socratic Method. I, for one, would love to have a discussion with him.

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