No Country for Old Men, or the end of cinema

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. Image from No Country for Old MenIt 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.

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22 Responses to No Country for Old Men, or the end of cinema

  1. Chris L says:

    I’m going to respond even though your kind of lyrical response in a way closes the door to anything else. But since comments are open on this post 🙂

    I guess my immediate answer would be: who says any film– even by the Coen Bros– represents the whole world? Is the world without hope? Of course not. But is there *a* world without hope? I’d say of course yes. These bleak worlds are out there and they don’t go away by my pretending they aren’t… but neither are they, or this film, everything or meant to be everything. At its best I don’t see filmmaking as a series of steps leading to an end, but a series of more and less accomplished additions to a tableau characterized by diversity and the conflicting nature of non-binary truth.

    NCfOM isn’t the end result of some process in which late entries eclipse and invalidate others… the worlds of Fargo and Blood Simple, The Big Lebowski and Barton Fink tick on. Though I do agree– and have said– that this is a film they needed to make because it brought together so many elements from so many of their films. Apparently I also saw a lot more humor in the film than you did, which would temper my response. I also saw the recognition that the insular, bleak world being portrayed was just one wheel within many, where the edges intersect but do not necessarily destroy each other (kids on bikes, the green shoot that grow out of suburbia despite its apparent sterility). But if you choose to enter that circle– as Brolin’s character did– the escapist fantasy rules of pop cinema don’t necessarily apply.

    Metaphorically, without this film something has always been missing in the Coen’s array of work… like a painter who masters and authentically uses all the colors except blue (or maybe, in this case, black).

    Have you seen notes about their next: Burn After Reading?

  2. Alan Levine says:

    I cannot dance with you and Chris on cinematic theory, but what I liked is this movie breaks so many conventions of films. Its not just Good Guys Beating Bad Guys (the good guy dies), it is not a film that as package that ends- like Fargo had a closing point.

    It wa just so lovely to walk out of the theater and hear people bitch and moan about “how terrible” the ending was or just “what the ____ was that?” because the public has been trained to expect films with simple arcs and clear endings.

    I think you are looking for all of the message to be in the film, and I see it as the Coens asking us a question – is this the world we really want to live it (not suggesting it is, but asking us to consider). And if the answer is no, what kind of world might it me. Is it a country for *any* man/woman?

    My feeling is they break our expectations of plot and that the answers to the questions must all be *within* the film.

    Or maybe I just did not get enough popcorn, but I like how it messes with our expectations.

  3. Reverend says:

    @Chris:

    At its best I don’t see filmmaking as a series of steps leading to an end, but a series of more and less accomplished additions to a tableau characterized by diversity and the conflicting nature of non-binary truth.

    Where is the diversity and conflicting nature of non-binary truth in this film. All roads to lead to the dire sense of nothingness. And while film may not be a simple series of steps, there is without question a strong sense of relations between films over time, and noticing the progression from Blood Simple to Fargo to No Country for Old Men is an interesting “progression.” Themes of the neo-noir, ultra-violence, and technique entirely exhausted by the time we get to No Country for Old Men.

    And while I recognize the power of this film on many levels (not least of which my strong reaction to it), unlike you I feel like this is the film they never should have made, it explodes so much of their previous work for me, and points to a very simplistic, artistic cop out choosing the occasion of utter despair and lack of faith in humanity that represents the worst of Kubrick’s filmmaking. And while it isn;t the only world necessarily, it is the world thy choose exclusively to focus on here, and the one people seem to be so excited about for its artistic genius. I don;t necessarily buy this when it is pawned off as “genius.” To quote the master at length:

    Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed–love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, and victories without hope and worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

    Until he learns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

    No Country For Old Man is about the gland and the end, it is that worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening. Wow, how is that for an untenable response!! I may have even outdone myself!

    @Alan
    I find the question to be more of n argument they are laying before us. I find good films to be an argument, and for that you may make me reconsider my ideas of NCFOM to some degree, but the argument they put forth I find really irresponsible and glib. The question is wrapped around the horrors people are consistently willing to inflict on one another without conscience, and with some outdated notion of dignity to give it a strange sense of nostalgic honor. The question is the core of an idea that frames this world as something utterly brutal and violent, and while I liked the movie for many reasons on several different levels, it left me feeling hollow, kind of like questions were the very thing being precluded. Not unlike this post, as Chris effectively points out 🙂

  4. Chris L says:

    Man, you are bringing out the heavyweights. I’m in a situation where my heart agrees with you but my intellect wants to keep going 🙂 That could pretty much sum it up, but I’ll go on a little anyway…

    I clearly see a small vein of hope toward the end that you do not– and I think it is one that the blackout of the end points to the Sheriff not seeing either. It’s totally left to us, which is one of aspects of the film I like. Keep in mind that I might also be hopelessly corrupted by my reading of the book long before I saw the film.

    I think that the diverse representation and non-binary truth is not just in this film, but in their works as a whole. Where the context of all the Coen films ruins NCfOM for you, it buoys it for me. I’m with you on the Faulkner, but I don’t understand why being a pillar to help endure precludes other artistic activties. Is exposing the darkness not a necessary act as well? Isn’t that part of what makes the complete oeuvre work? Is good art, as Faulkner posits, really only possible with the acknowledgement of light and redemption? And if so, doesn’t this film actually make the other films shine that much more by positioning a non-ironic part of their whole cinematic world?

    It’s interesting how the film brings out– not just in this conversation, but in others– the diversity in the way people understand bodies of work and their thoughts about despair and banality in the way nothing else I’ve seen does.

    NCfOM is just one world of many, but a real one. I don’t see how it explodes their other films to recognize that the bleakness exists, that there isn’t always a desire for repentance, that there isn’t always an alternative to despair, that there isn’t always a light to turn on in the dark…

  5. Chris L says:

    One other thing– the progression scenario of their films that you put forth seems to imply that Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski and other films were akin to taking a break from the darker work of creating this sequence that leads to empty despair and nihilism. But what if those films are part of the whole in a more integrated way, not just diversions? What if, rather than a sequence, the films are all parts of a larger whole, and that while technique and skill might increase, the bigger picture is not about progression and one film eclipsing and partially replacing the previous one, but more additions to a whole world view in which The Dude and Sighur and Loren Visser and Walter Sobchak and the Steve Buscemi character in Fargo aren’t different worlds but parts of the same elephant that in and of themselves is going unrecognized?

  6. Scott Leslie says:

    I feel some song lyrics coming on…

    “Maybe there isn’t a vein of stars callin’ out my name
    They’ll glow from above our heads
    Nothin’ there to see you down on your knees
    25, 26, 27
    Back from the future maybe there ain’t no heaven
    There’s just you and me
    Maybe that’s all whose left
    And if there ain’t no heaven
    Maybe there ain’t no hell

    Who knows
    Maybe there isn’t a vein of stars callin’ out my name”

    Is it possible that they are asking us not to resolve, but to constantly hold in tension, choosing and being chosen for, free will and pre-destination? Or if maybe, as you seem to be arguing, they resolve this tension in one specific (in your reading nihilistic, fatalistic) direction in *this* film (which I kind of agree with but think you can find other small openings, always), it needs to be understood within the context of their ouevre of films (on this I think Chris is right, their “screwball comedies” as well) and not just this one, and not in a “progression” which I think is wrong, because they vascillate, wildly at times. Just saying, is all…

    (I wrote this much better the first time but goofed my email address and the comment system ate it, oh well, dem’s da breaks)

  7. Reverend says:

    @Chris & Scott:

    Damn double-teaming injuns! I think you both make excellent points about my flawed argument in regards to a progression. I also have a problem with my logic here, and the notion of some kind of forward progress as a necessity or even desirable effect is problematic. So I tend to agree with you both there. The wild oscillation between all their films is important, and I guess my points might be better framed as how much this film paled for me in comparison to other attempts like Fargo, the Big Lebowski, Blood Simple, Barton Fink, etc.

    Interestingly enough, after reading the comments here, which are awesome and I thank you for indulging, I actually realized that I was omitting one of the most important elements of this film which Chris alludes to, the novel. I have yet to yet a Cormac McCarthy novel, and spent some time this afternoon with Claudia Emerson talking about his work and the dire vision that his novels convey. In fact, she suggested her second book of poetry, Pinion, An Elegy, was written partially under the influence of her intense readings of McCarthy, and she concurred about those strange moments of horrific humor and horror his novels manage both artfully and painfully.

    So, for my sins with this post, she recommended I pickup his novel The Road, which from the description makes No Country for Old Man look like a romantic comedy. I guess when you are tightrope walking on the edge of insanity, no reason not to start flailing wildly to make sure you fill into the abyss.

    So, while I stand by a good amount of my problems with No Country for Old Men, its ability to gnaw away is suggests one of two things: the movie is so deep and powerful it refuses to stop gnawing away at my soul or the orgiastic, nihilism-induced hangover just hasn’t gone away yet. I hope it’s something a couple of aspirin and McCarthy’s The Road can fix 🙂

  8. Scott Leslie says:

    So while we are all rectifying here, I want to publicly apologize to Chris for a crack I made about NCfOM at Northern Voice “I liked everything about the movie…except the Cormac McCarthy bits.” It was harsh and in retrospect untrue, though a little bit of it was a similar reaction to yours, Jim, and specifically to Chiguhr getting hit by the car at the end (though I have come to appreciate that also, in retrospect).

    I once was a huge McCarthy fan, though not of any of his later, popular works. Long ago, when I was an undergrad lit and philosophy student still drunk on Joyce, I stumbled across “Suttree” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suttree) and spent the rest of the summer sitting on my front porch drinking bourbon. You might want to start there, especially as you seem fond of quoting Faulkner.

    Great discussion guys. Really enjoyed this. And Jim, finally viewed “Lolita” last night, thanks for the prodding to delve deep again on Kubrick, it has been rewarding.

  9. Scott Leslie says:

    I tried to explain my sudden change in attitude on twitter but 140 characters won’t suffice. Two days ago I watched the original “The Ladykillers.” It was a blast, a true classic – Alec Guinness is tremendous, campy without chewing the scenery, and Hubert Lom! Last night I watched the Coen Brother’s remake. Now I don’t think it was a total train wreck, but it certainly doesn’t stand up to the original, and I think the differences are *incredibly* telling. In my reading, the major changes they made (that really hurt the production) were around the little old lady character, the relationships between the crooks, and the dialogue. They got the little old lady character SO wrong – instead of the sweet old women who through happenstance ends up besting the crooks in the original (really what gives the original’s ending its humour) we have a character who, from the get go, is clearly overmatched to the witless robbers. Then the robbers themselves – the ‘thug’ character is so underdeveoped as to be non-existant, but certainly not enough for his defence of the old lady/death to make any sense, but for that matter, none of their deaths make much sense because the characterization is so weak, so instead we get an ode to chance and comeuppance. And the dialogue – Hanks character (now that is scenery chewing) is so high talkin’, Wayans so lo, there is no warmth to any of the dialogue.

    So why this long analysis of “The Ladykillers” in a post about No Country for Old Men? Well, above I was trying to argue that NCfOM need to be understood within their oeuvre as part of a continuum of explorations on the role of fate, chance and choice. I still think that is true, but coming back to your comments after having viewed The Ladykillers (and Lebowski and Blood Simple in the last few weeks) it is easy to see fate, chance and choice running roughshod over characters (and characterization) through *all* their films in a way that seems, as I think you are arguing, to logically lead to the nihilism of NCfOM.

    So, the “end of cinema?” I’ll leave that as so much Brooklyn hyperbole. But I’m willing to concede your analysis more than I was; I wanted to argue for subtlety and the lack of resolution in their films, and I think that’s still true, but what seems in retrospect the coldness with which they treat all of their characters does bely some resolution. Or maybe the resolution is finally a post-modern one, a realization that these are all *characters* under the influence of an author, and that they are only movies after all. Which would still seem to support your point.

    Finally, while we are at it, Jim, I want to sincerely thank you for re-igniting a passion in my for film as art, and for causing me to go back an re-visit many great films because of a few of your posts (specifically this one and the Kubrick thread you had going a while). It is great to go back and see films with the eyes I bring 20 years later, still misunderstanding them, but in a whole different way this time 😉

  10. Reverend says:

    Scott,
    Wow, thank you for an awesome series of comments, it is me that should be complimenting you, not the other way around.

    In fact, thanks to your comment it’s now my turn to go back to the vaults. For I haven’t yet seen the original Lady Killers so I am putting that on my list (right after the World’s Greatest Sinner which is finally in my possession), but the Coen Brothers version annoyed me to no end for exactly the reasons you list above. It was shallow, unconvincing, and terribly flat. In fact, I had a discussion similar to the one we are having here during my trip to Italy over Christmas break with a friend, Andrea Andreotti, who is a great American film buff and was extremely down on the Coen Brothers recent films. Andrea argued that the Coen Bros. recent films were over-crafted and underdeveloped to a fault, and suggest this has been the case since Lebowski.

    I had heard nothing but great things about NCFOM, and was arguing that this might be a return to the art of films like Barton Fink and Fargo, without having seen the film yet. But is critique loomed large in my mind while watching the film. (BTW, I actually saw Eastern promises with Andrea and Anto and he really liked the film, so you two would actually have a lot to talk about 🙂 ). I think the “End of Cinema” is a hyperbole, and I pride myself with them, but I would argue that we re seeing something that might suggest a larger trend in recent films, namely the move towards an unrepentant evisceration of character, pathos, and everything that would ultimately suggest there can be another film, or even a response to the film.

    The fact that so many “great” films these days preclude this reality (and get all the honors and acclaim etc.) seems to me a more concerted realization that film as a popular medium is in many ways secondary to the emergence of more DIY narrative experiments, virtual worlds, interactive video games, etc. I think film’s heyday as art is over, and it will be remembered as the medimu of the 20th century, but it space for creativity will be morphed into the online, interactive worlds we are currently exploring togehter. Soon films will be collaborative, online experiences that will aford some unique possibilities that I can;t entirely grok yet.

    But, in the mean time, it is still my favorite form bar none, and I hate to see it so gleefully stripped of its most powerful element (which goes for just about any narrative): pathos.

  11. Scott Leslie says:

    I think the other important thing left out in a discussion of NCfOM is the historical context in which it was made (not set). I’m not arguing that it’s a film *about* the war in Iraq, but I had the distinct sense while watching the film that its makers were painfully aware of not just the war but larger global concerns, that its bleakness was, if not a reaction to, somehow influenced by. I am not expressing this well and I am not trying to explain away the film or its perceived nihilism by reference to this. I am sure an actual film student/critic could do something interesting contrasting NCfOM, a film made *during* a war in Iraq, with The Big Lebowski, a film *set* during a war in Iraq, but not me, at least not now in the space of a blog comment (during a work day, eek!)

  12. Martin says:

    Ok, a few months late, but I’ve only just seen NCfOM, so here’s my contribution.
    In fact while I was watching it, I was thinking about this debate – I’m not sure if this made the veiwing more or less enjoyable.
    I’m going to have a stab at arguing that it does have a moral sense, rather than whether it’s a great film. My moral argument has two elements which can be summarised as Title and Nabakov.
    Taking the title first, I read it to mean that there is a separate country, one that exists alongside our own, but where old age is not permitted. This is a nihilistic, bleak world as you argue. But what is important I think is the intersection with ‘our’ country. Most of the people we meet here are decent – the old man in the garage, the kids at the end, Kelly MacDonald’s character, etc. Llewelyn Moss occupies something of a middle ground, and the money becomes his passport to this country – he becomes an immigrant. Tommy Lee Jones is someone who has been affected by being a regular tourist in this country (let me know when I’ve overstretched this metaphor). The morality then is in comparison with our own country, and the corrupting nature of the Non-Old men country.
    Next, the Nabakov angle, which probably applies more to the Coen brothers’ oeuvre than NCfOM. Nabakov argued that ‘style is morality’ This was in response to the accusations against Lolita, as promoting or being sympathetic to the Humbert Humbert. His argument was that the ironic style of the prose provided the moral framework. One might argue that the Coen brothers do the same. The ironic wink is saying ‘we don’t think this is cool’. I’m less sure of this argument – it works for Nabakov, but less so for the Coens, and as has been commented NCfOM lacks much of their customary irony.
    As for the film, I didn’t think it was great. Good, but not great. It committed what for me is an all too common crime these days – being overlong (see also Deathproof, Into the Wild). This is just indulgence, like a Yes synthesiser solo.
    A small point – why does Millers Crossing always get dropped off the list of Coen bros movies? It is, for me, a near perfect film, and I think is much more of the precursor to NCfOM than most of the others that are listed – interestingly it’s also one they based closely on a novel, Hammett’s Glass Key/Red Harvest.

  13. Scott Leslie says:

    Martin, you are right about Miller’s Crossing, a great film that was left out of this discussion and too often forgotten (maybe even because of its greatness?). But if I were to bring it in to this discussion (and this without having seen it for at least 5 years, possibly 10) I’d say that it is the one film where, in part because of the very genre it is exploring/exploiting, my revised thesis that the Coen’s ouevre exhibits a strong tendency to privilege authorial control and the role of fate, choice and chance over authentic characters is actually one of that film’s assets. It doesn’t stand out, and indeed is important as a critical generic trope of ‘noir.’

    I definitely didn’t hate this film, and hopefully it is obvious that over the years I’ve loved watching Coen brothers’ films. But this discussion definitely got my radar up for their next film – I am not unsympathetic to the idea that style is important, and that “ironic style” can counter-balance or undercut more overt messages. And the Coens are without a doubt masterful stylists. But this can also be too glib by half, indeed this gets for me to the heart of so many major cultural clashes and disconnects I feel surrounded by right now.

    Perhaps, though, this is what in the end rates this as a piece of art, that it inspires this dialogue and is not easily dismissed as either ‘just style’ or else moralistic pedantry (unlike say, to be contentious, Tarantino’s films, which I’m increasingly willing to write off as ‘just style’ or style that does not end up as effect counterpoint to the overwhelming violence and degredation in his films.)

  14. Reverend says:

    Scott and Martin,

    The more I think about the Coen Brothers films, the more I am willing to write them off entirely, as opposed to filmmakers like Tarantino. Reason being is that their style lacks anything resembling a soul. I think it is telling that Miller’s Crossing got left out because as much as it is near perfect, great cinema, etc., it doesn’t have a soul –like much of the Coen Brothers “oeuvre.” And unlike what it seems I am arguing for at times in this post, I am not so concerned with a moral order or filmmaking being somehow socially responsible, I think that is beside the point and is often only accomplished as an unintentional historical side effect. Miller’s Crossing isn’t the beautifully textured world of Coppola’s The Godfather, nor is it tantamount to just about any of the Noir greats, I’m thinking Billy Wilder, Richard Siodmak, Robert Wise, etc. Miller’s Crossing is kind of a cross between the gangster film and the Noir, and it seldom lives up to the power of the best of either of these genres, no less both. As a gangster film, it is the meta-gangster film. The film about film that explores the tropes and executes all the beauty of what makes a great scene flawlessly –I’m thinking about Albert Finney’s operatic machine gunning specifically here) but in the end it was all about symbols and hats and heads and the like.

    As a Noir (and I’m not sure it’s much of a Noir at all despite it being loosely based on The Glass Key and Red Harvest (both far superior narratives, btw)), it never really frames a compelling space to become engaged in the questions of fate, happenstance, and the absence of will –all of which are key to the darkness of that genre in my opinion. Gabriel Byrne is the “Smart Guy,” and he’s in many regards the antithesis to the Noir character, he controls the action rather than being controlled by it, and in the end it leaves me pretty much unsympathetic with him, Albert Finney’s character, and the rest of the film’s players. The film is about caricatures of these two great genres, but none of them ever become anything more than that –resulting in it being a truly flat masterpiece (like much of the Coen Brothers work now that I think about it). A dead fish that signifies far better than it swims.

    It is bizarre, but this thread has made me think harder and harder about the space I have heretofore given the Coen Brothers on my movie shelf, and I find it is shrinking evermore these days (only the The Big Lebowski and Barton Fink are left and I am now afraid to re-watch them).

    As for comparing Nabakov’s irony with the Coen Brothers, I’m not so sure they’re even in the same ballpark, so very few film writers are. I think the only consistently great writer for film who I would dare to compare the power of irony and great dialog with the likes of Nabokov would be the equally great Billy Wilder. The Coen Brothers are too good, their lines are too crisp, and they’re derivative of all that came before them in the worst, rather than the best way.

    Man, why have I turned so hard on the Coen Brothers so quickly? Well, I really believe No Country for Old Men was the moment for me when I realized the emperor has no clothes on. It was without question a cumulative failure for me 😉

  15. Martin says:

    Okay Jim, I’m going to start off disagreeing with you (for the sake of it) and then come around to agreeing with you.
    Firstly, while I think there is something in your analysis of MC, I would argue that if you watched it 100 years hence, you wouldn’t really know it was done at a different time from many original noirs. I’m a big noir fan (surely the best example of the literature finding an equivalent representation in cinema), but I think it sits well within that canon. Partly this is because the modern sensibilities allow much of the violence and amorality in the books (they are extraordinarily violent, in a good way) to be filmed, which they couldn’t in the originals. Secondly, the Coens are allowed to indulge in some of the complex political machinations in the novels. Thirdly, I think it was done with a real sense of admiration and affection for those films, and not just the easy pastiche of noir that is so often passed off (the first half of Tarantino’s Deathproof has this too). Lastly, I think it does touch on many of the great themes of noir – loyalty, individuality, a sense of right in a complex world, etc. I think the assassination scene in the forest is probably one of the most emotionally laden ones the Coens have ever done.
    Secondly, I wasn’t comparing the Coens to Nabakov, but rather using his general argument that style itself carries a moral argument.
    Having said that, I think the postmodern, ironic wink of the Coens really works best in comedy. The Big Lebowski and Raising Arizona are the two prime examples. I have an issue with postmodern irony in that it is a refuge for cake eaters – they want to appeal to the non-ironic audience, but if they have any accusations of being excessively violent/sexist/plagiarist etc then they will play the ‘oh we’re being ironic’ card. It’s just a bit tiring now.
    Mind you, I also had the misfortune to see ‘I am Legend’ the night after NCfOM. One could argue that has a moral sense (God = good, Science = bad), but it’s so trite and awful, I’d go for the ironic nihilism of the Coens any day. Not that this is the only choice, for sure.

  16. James says:

    apoiler (so I need to leave a warning for this…?)

    I think you’re mis-interpreting the film. I think that it is far from being nihilistic. Anton seems to be the only nihilistic force in the film and he is most definitely not an admirable character. The way I interpreted it was something about how people react in the face of such evil and terror that Anton represents, as well as the things like the drug deal battle in the beginning. Llewelen chose to become a part of the evil by taking the money, as did the gas station attendant when he decided to call the coin toss, and Carson when he decided to hunt Anton. Even the boys at the end made this decision, when they took the money in exchange for no telling the ambulance or police about Anton. The only character who for sure made the right choice that we see in the movie is Carla Jean. She was the only one who refused to humor Anton, refused to play his game and become a part of theevil. Yes, she did die for her action, but her action was still a beautiful one. She knew what would happen if she refused to play Anton’s game, and refused anyway.
    The final scene seems to me to be the climax of the film. Will Ed Tom decide to go after Anton, to finish waht he satrted and do what he needs to do as a force of justice? or will become complacent and ignores what he knows is right? the scene when he meets with the old man in the wheelchair shows him what the right choice is. “You can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” He sems, at least to me, to be a symbol of consciousness, and how we know what we should do in the face of such evil. Ed Tom’s dream is foreshadowing of what he now must do. Has to follow his father into the nothingness, the blackness, following his father’s light. Ed tom becomes here a symbol of justice, but as we all know people do not always do what they should in situations where we are faced with such horrific evil and nihilism as Anton represents, and become complacent, retiring from life like Ed Tom retired from his post as sheriff. Ed Tom wakes up as soon as his dream ends, as if the dream itself is leaving him the choice. The film cannot answer the question of what Ed Tom will do, because although he knows what he should do, if we take him as a larger symbol of justice it is impossible to call his action because it can go both ways.
    This is not a nihilistic film, in fact if you ask me it is flying in the face of the nihilism that permeates so many other movies. it is, however, a realistic film, which is why it cannot answer the question of whether or not Anton’s evil and nihilism will be stopped. I could see how you might see it as nihilistic, but I think that you have misinterpreted the film. I personally find it to be one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen, perhaps because of the way that I interpreted it. Maybe I can win you over? =)

  17. Scott Leslie says:

    “Llewelen chose to become a part of the evil by taking the money, as did the gas station attendant when he decided to call the coin toss”

    Did we watch the same film? The gas station attendant is begging, even before the coin toss, for Anton to go away. He looks up from the counter and sees nothing but trouble. What is so disturbing about that scene is how relentless Churgin is in forcing him to make a choice that is not a choice.

    And it’s not nihilistic that the only character, Carla Jean, who, in your reading, makes the “right” choice gets (we presume, I think the fact that we don’t see it is intentional) summarily executed?

    The kids? They offer him the shirt, for free. For Anton, they *must* accept the money. It’s not their choice but his imposition of his will even in the face of charity.

    “You can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” That is a clarion call against nihilism how exactly? I’m all for undercutting the certainty of ego and choice, that’s the playground I was at first arguing the Coen’s inhabit in all their films, but the openings here do not feel very big, if they exist at all.

    There are definitely people who make choices in this film. But it is precisely the choices that are not choices (and morever, comparing this to other Coen films which I began to see also toyed with the character’s agency in favour of authorial/narrative majesty or simply fate and chance trumping all) that turned me around to the idea that this was far more nihilistic than I first read it as.

  18. Reverend says:

    @Martin,
    I think you are right that the comedy is more the realm for the postmodern wink than the noir genre they keep returning to. I think a kind of contemporary noir is a strange idea for we are, in so many ways, removed from the existential notions that made that genre so powerful. We live more deeply in a reality where violence is alost an unquestioned part of the state of things (not something extraordinary and marginal as the Noir frames it). The post-war moment seems to wash away some of the art of violence, replacing it with the factory setting Warhol used to frame consumerism, the current state of the media, and the commodification of culture more generally. All these elements make violence and death intriguing and relevant as headlines and artworks, but gravity is lost within the pixels on the monitor at this point for we are ever more alienated and removed from an actual authentic event of evil, terror, and horror.

    That is why 9/11 looms so large in my imagination still. For 24 hours in the US all ads stopped, the country’s endless parade of news, consumerism, and mindless bullshit was frozen in its place. What became apparent immediately was that without these things the darker realities of our imperialistic policies abroad and at home became more apparent. A break in the endless broadcasting of our mediated lives in the moments immediately after this international tragedy was captured beautifully by Spike Lee in The 25th Hour, which for me makes a film like NOCFM neither shocking nor terribly necessary. And its grandiose push for the end of the world seems almost trite, not unlike I am Legend, which has the benefit of always being a hollywood blockbuster that won’t pretend to move outside of the predominant logic, something NCFOM promises but fails to deliver on.

    @James,

    I think you have some pretty solid points in your reading, but I agree with Scott’s suggestions that many of the moments and lines you choose might just as well be interpreted as a moment where the Coen Brothers nihilism manifests itself. Particularly the scene when the sheriff meets up with his wheelchair bound uncle, like Scott, Ica’t help but read “You can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity” as a moment of nihilism that in many ways allows the sheriff to opt out of the hunt for Anton all together. If he can’t stop it, why on earth would he pursue Anton and risk his life? It would be a meaningless end, much like Carla Jean’s. Should she take pride in the fact that she refused Anton;s paying God? Would it really have worked out differently either way? Probably not.

    I don’t usually go into movies looking for hope, inspiration, or some kind of moral coda, and that is why NCFOM hit me so hard, it was far more sinister in its moral than I would have expected. And while the film did have an impression on me, it seems to have been a problematic one at best. And I won’t suggest it as a bad film, for I think there is a lot behind your sense of its beauty and power. I just can’t reading its ultimate movement towards total annihilation and desperation as the more general state of cinema. This moves towards self-cannibalization for effect and violent intrigue, yet the violence and intrigue are all but empty and pointless. But I don’t know, I feel like I am preachy about this film in a strange way that I’m usually not about others. So I have to contnue to think about my very strong reaction to it.

    @Scott,

    What a spot on response. You’re a madman; I love you more and more everyday 🙂

  19. Adam says:

    Nothing is resolved & everybody dies. Even a Shakespearian tragedy has some sense of a resolution. This film left me feeling like a voyeur watching various people engage in disjointed actions with nothing to pull them all together or draw you in to the story (or lack thereof). I strongly beleive that the Coen brothers are WAY overrated. Can anyone say “get a plot?” It doesn’t matter how good the actors are or how beautiful the cinematography is. Movies are another method of storytelling and actors and scenery do not tell stories. Characters which develop through a series of plot related events intertwined with a solid storyline are what make good movies. This film could have had the same effect intended by the Coen brothers if it was shown as a slide show, so what’s the point of making it into a movie?

    Of course, this is my not so humble opinion. 🙂

  20. Cormac says:

    This is what I picked up from the ending..just watched an hour ago –

    Bell states that he thought “god would come to him” later in life (but that apparently god never did).
    However, previously when Bell re-entered the crime scene just after Chigurh: not getting blown away was god’s intervention, unknown to Bell.
    And Bell’s dream of going to meet his father waiting with a warm fire offers Bell the belief that god too waits for him after life.. Even though he lost the fathers money.

    The money his father gave to him that he lost in his dream parallels the power god gave him as sheriff, which he too lost by failing to bring in Chigurh. And just as his father waits for him even having lost the money, so too god waits for him.

    Guys I’m not a very religious man but that’s what I thought the closing scene depicted.

    Anyway my head hurts having read all your comments; you obviously know your stuff!!

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