Let me ask you something. If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?
This is the question I would ask of the Coen Brothers after watching this film. The rule in my mind was the reworking of a narrative logic in their films spanning over twenty years, in particular Blood Simple (1984) and Fargo (1996), that culminates in No Country for Old Men (2007). What was the use if it ultimately results in an empty, nihilistic vision of the world that is hermetically sealed off from analysis. I am struck by the fact that so many people recommended this film to me with superlatives like “it’s great,” “a masterpiece,” their “best film yet.” How can they without the disclaimer that it is also deeply empty, horrifically savage, unrepenting in its push towards utter desperation and mindful paranoia.
Now, this isn’t to say that No Country for Old Men isn’t great film, for it is beautifully shot, masterfully written, and brilliantly acted (a big hat tip to Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem — remarkable performances). All the key elements to a great movie are present, and on the surface (or even at first glance) it may seem like a masterpiece, but in truth there is nothing else there. It is a beautifully executed nightmare, a perfect apocalypse, an empty lyric. Unlike Blood Simple and Fargo (many scenes of which were simply re-shot in a different locale for this film) there is no real comedic element to these tragedies, there is no way to finding meaning in the acts of violence through some metaphorical relationship between worlds, characters, or even language; it is all stripped to a kind of horrific minimalism where things can only be laughed at because there is no other alternative for making sense, or as the Sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) says in response to his deputy laughing at a horrific story of murder he relates from the day’s newspaper, “Well, that’s all right. I laugh myself sometimes. Ain’t a whole lot else you can do.” Moments of any kind of comedy in this film are few and far between, and the idea of laughing is often a result of some linguistic break that provides and outlet to an otherwise demoralizing vision of the utter brutality of everything and everyone. Case in point, when the Sheriff and his deputy are discussing the recent murders, the comedy has less to do with anything about this situation being comedic, and a simple linguistic trick of presence:
Deputy: None of the three had ID on ’em, but there tellin’ me all three is Mexican…was Mexicans.
Sheriff: There’s a question, whether they stopped being and when.
Does one stop being a Mexiacan? —or does one just stop being? At the heart of this comment is the theme of nothingness and emptiness that is typified in the dream of Tommy Lee Jones at the very end of the film, a meager sense of hope that can barely be articulated in the face of the ddread that typifies living, the final nail in the coffin of this film that immediately goes to black to further knock you over th head with the idea that it is concerned with nothingness. Now, if this is the case, and this is the logic that films like Blood Simple and Fargo ultimately lead you to? Then what use was the rule? I really am interested, because this film haunts me not so much for its over indulgence in the horror of living, and the violence of dying, but the fact that it is feebly trying to polemicize these things with a beautifully thin tapestry of words, images, and actions that veil the asserted reality that nothing stands behind it — why do it? What’s the point?
And don’t tell me it’s about violence, America, hunting, the border, blah, blah, blah, blah. I don’t wanna hear it, particularly since this film posits and exhausts its own limits of possibility. This is not a film to be lyrically read and imagined in the face of horror like Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002), it is one to cower in front of in desperation. It is the end of cinema, the logical extension and exhaustion of what was once a complex, nuanced Noir vision taken to its logical extreme. I can stand to think about it, it just depresses me that so many people are so quick to applaud something that is so deeply disturbing, with no sense of escape –it is like the worst kind of fear and propaganda film made by the best of craftsmen.