No Country for Old Men
Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007
Ebert: 4 Stars
Rotten Tomatoes: 95%
My Official Preconception: Some kind of grim Western deal, maybe?
Back in the day, you knew what to expect from a movie set in the arid American West. The noble cowpoke, living according to a rugged, manly code of honor, held fast to his freedom against the always threatening encroachment of rules, fences, due process, and womenfolk. There was plenty of violence, sure, but that was what a man had to do to protect himself from Native Americans and other, black-hatted cowpokes who sought to encroach on the property rights of others.
In the last three or four decades, movies have followed historians into a more sophisticated understanding of Western history, and many a fine Western has taken seriously the experience of Natives, women, Hispanics, and so on, has looked at the regional ecology as an integral part of the story rather than just a scenic backdrop, and has considered the contests for power among elites that shaped the lives of humble folks trying to get on from day to day west of the Mississippi. These films are often called “Anti-Westerns,” and many of them are pretty cool.
The Western trope that is most dramatically inverted in No Country for Old Men is that of the masculine protagonist’s doomed battle against the forces of civilization. In No County, the “good guys” represent civilized virtues and values, and their battle is against the forces of chaos and lawlessness. In the central plot, those forces are manifested by nasty business in the cross-border drug trade and by a spooky hit man who kills lots of people on drug-trade business, but also in fulfillment of his own rugged, manly code of honor. So, what you have here is perhaps not as much an Anti-Western as an Inverted Western.
Now then. It is beautiful, and depicts the West Texas landscape with exquisite care and sensitivity. It is also thoroughly saturated with senseless violence, and therefore not a good pick for those averse to scarlet sprays of blood in their filmed entertainment. The acting is beyond reproach, with characters vividly realized from the leads right down to the non-speaking extras. (For those of you following along with the DVD, take a look at the scene where the Bad Guy has his procedural showdown with the trailer park manager. You could write a book about that marvelous woman behind the desk. In fact, let’s get that character actress’ name into this review, for she is fabulous: Kathy Lamkin).
Set in 1980, the film is more or less presented from the point of view of a retiring sheriff who feels overwhelmed by a rising tide of lawlessness and disorder. Towards the end, after the movie has deviated from the expected narrative arc – was that a spoiler? – the sheriff pays a visit to a shoestring relative, a character we have not met before. He complains of how the world is going to hell in a handbasket. People have been letting him make this complaint unchallenged throughout the entire film, but his relative responds with a story of senseless violence from 1909, and points out, correctly, that “Whatcha got ain't nothin new.” Then, in the penultimate scene, an entirely respectable young man literally offers a stranger the shirt off his back. So, violence may be part of the West, or the world, but this is not something unique to these times, or those times, nor is it going to be all-pervasive in the present or in the future. And the movie’s final scene, a quiet reverie, is a subtle but perfect affirmation of this basically optimistic message.
So that’s the intellectual underpinnings, anyhow. But mind you, don’t forget it’s a blood-soaked serial-killer chase movie. It's adapted, apparently pretty faithfully, from a novel by Cormac McCarthy. The title is in some ways perfect, but also makes me wonder how closely McCarthy read “Sailing to Byzantium,” the Yeats poem from which it is taken.
Prognosis: * * * 1/2. I can't really give four stars to a movie about an implacable serial killer, even if this is a damn fine one and not "about" serial killing per se. Random murderous rampages are so very rare, and to pretend otherwise in our movies, as convenient as it is for a filmmaker who needs a direct route to our most thrilling fears, is socially corrosive. Having said that, if you don't mind seeing depictions of bloated corpses, execution-style murder, bones sticking out of the skin, and what-not, I recommend this film as highly entertaining and damned near technically perfect.