No Country for Old Men

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No Country For Old Men is, probably,

the single most critically lauded film of the Coen Brothers’ career.

It’s also a departure, especially in that it largely subjugates their

own exhibitionist hallmarks of style and characterization to those

established in the source material–in this case an expertly grim

genre potboiler by Cormac McCarthy.


No Country gets great benefits

from the outstanding performances at its center – Javier Bardem’s

cold-blooded killer the kind of outsized stereotype that

self-identifies as a Coen creation, but paying dividends in

counterpoint to Josh Brolin’s quiet desperado and Tommy Lee Jones’s

mournful good-ol-boy sheriff. I was yanked out of the story when

vibe-busting reminders of the old-school Coen Brothers’ schtick

appeared on screen, especially the straight-out-of-central-casting

types who inhabit the film’s smaller speaking parts – the motel

clerk who woodenly insists Brolin select from a menu of room choices,

the mama who dodders through her scenes like a Spike Jonze Jackass

parody of the elderly, and even the gas-station proprietor whose

highly directed performance almost wrecks that crucial early,

mood-setting scene with Chigurh. In a broad comedy like the wonderful

paean to country folk and bluegrass O Brother Where Art Thou or the

bountiful ode to stoner lifestyles The Big Lebowski, they’d be

welcome, maybe even show-stealers. But juxtaposed with No Country‘s

sad-eyed hero performances, they feel forced, inauthentic, even

(here’s that accusation so often lobbed at the Coens) crudely

condescending.

That’s not to say that the Coens’ style is a

liability; they make consistently smart decisions in condensing and

adapting McCarthy’s novel, especially when it comes to packing the

gist of Ed Tom Bell’s lengthy monologues from the printed page into

snatches of dialogue on screen. They work the story for suspense,

fully exploiting the conventions of crime drama in a narrative

(McCarthy’s) that, eventually, deliberately flouts genre convention

to terminate in a meditation on aging and mortality and maybe

nostalgia. And they invent a scene that has the sheriff and the

killer coming almost eyeball to eyeball across the portal of a

motel-room door with a blasted-out lock cylinder, their simultaneous

proximity and distance a necessarily cinematic expression that vaults

beyond the source material.

But the irony remains: two of our

greatest cinema stylists have made the most critically lauded film of

their career by ruthlessly corseting their formidable drive and

vision into the literary strictures dictated by a great American

novel. Seeing it a second time, at home, the melancholy grandeur of

the film’s final cut to black became even more apparent —

reassurance that I wasn’t simply bowing to conventional wisdom by

placing it on my top-10 list. No Country For Old Men is a triumph for

sure. But for the Coens, it’s also something of a capitulation. A-

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