In the following joint review, both John and Chris provide their takes on the movie, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Shots.
The Movie According to John:
People have lavished high praise and numerous awards on "No Country for Old Men," including Oscars for 2007's Best Picture, Best Director (Joel and Ethan Coen), Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem), and Best Writing (Coens), and the movie deserves much of the acclaim. I, too, found things to enjoy in it, but somewhere just after the halfway point my enthusiasm began to wane, and by the end of the film I had soured on it considerably. Understand, most critics loved the movie, so mine is a minority report, a counterpoint to the flood of applause you'll hear from practically everyone else.
In 1980, somewhere in southwest Texas near the Mexican border, a hunter, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), stumbles upon the remains of a bloodbath, a drug war gone bad, leaving everybody dead. There, he finds a pickup truck loaded with drugs and a briefcase filled with over $2,000,000. He takes the money and runs.
The crooked business interests behind the drug transaction hire a professional assassin, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), to track down whoever took their money, and the assassin is very good at his job. Along the course of the chase, a local sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), begins figuring things out and trying to intervene.
The Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel ("Miller's Crossing," "Fargo," "The Big Lebowski," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"), wrote and directed "No Country for Old Men" from the 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy. Lay any credit or any blame for the movie at the doorsteps of the Coens and McCarthy equally, as I understand the brothers did a faithful job in their screen adaptation.
I must admit that while I admired the movie's craftsmanship greatly, along with some of its excitement and tension and most of its subtly sardonic humor, I didn't entirely care for the film itself.
The filmmakers' idea is to turn the conventional Western thriller on its head. So while the Coens intend for a lot of things to look familiar, expect the unexpected. Just don't figure on it being a typical Coen laugh-fest. "No Country" is more along the lines of a bizarre, nihilistic, noir Western. And they fashion it with great care, recognizing that in order to build suspense you have to slow down and establish quiet first. Indeed, it's the quiet loneliness of the movie's characters and locations that probably comes over best--and the associated violence that erupts from it. There are vast stretches of stillness that match the vast stretches of desert so beautifully photographed by the Coens' favorite cinematographer, Roger Deakins. Together, the filmmakers work to create a tense narrative that often has one on the edge of one's seat. At least, until you get used to it and begin tiring of the repetition. Simultaneously, the Coens inject pithy, sometimes homespun, sometimes caustic homilies into the proceedings, apparently taking large chunks of dialogue directly from the book. All for the good. But after that, things go south.
The quiet, the solitude, the tension, the photography, and the wit are all up against what I view as the story's uncertain intent; largely stereotyped caricatures; lack of a central character; muddled themes; melodramatic, pulp-fiction action; and disappointing finish.
Let's start with film's intent, since that is the basis for most of my criticism. If this had been a straight-ahead thriller or even a gentle send-up of the action genre, I would gladly have accepted the exaggerated shenanigans that go on in the story. I love movies like "Pulp Fiction," "Kill Bill," "Sin City," and "Grindhouse." But the Coens' movie purports to be more than that. The tone of "No Country" has "high moral content" written all over it. That's where the trouble lies for me; the filmmakers clearly mean their bloody crime tale to represent some profound comment on American society and its declining moral values, a sort of thriller for the intellectual set. Yet I found the movie's somber attempts at enlightenment at odds with its corny theatrics. It's like trying to find some deep, inner meaning in "Die Hard." It doesn't work and only spoils the experience trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I appreciate the Coens' attempt to make something unique from a well-worn genre, but I probably would have liked the movie better had they done it without the vague symbolism.
Next, there's the issue of so many shallow people in one movie, with none of them taking the lead. Again, this is what I might have expected from a typical action yarn, where a lack of depth doesn't matter; but I didn't expect it from as earnest a movie as this one, which seems to reach for something higher. Ostensibly, the main character in "No Country" is Brolin's Moss, an iconic symbol for the rugged individualist who feels he's so self-reliant he can fight the system his way. Yet we met this very guy some forty years before in Kirk Douglas's "Lonely Are the Brave." Besides that, Moss is only in parts of the film. Then there's Jones's local sheriff, another folksy type that Jones has played often enough already, and just because he's good at it doesn't make it right. Yet, the sheriff isn't the main character, either, always being on the fringes of solving the crime but never quite finding the center of things. He's mostly just fun to watch and listen to, like a Greek chorus commenting on but never actually affecting the story's events (although it is he who carries most of the burden of the film's ultimate argument. Go figure). Woody Harrelson's charismatic bounty hunter comes and goes before we even know it, and for all his character's assumed smarts, he' pretty dumb and certainly no main character. Then there are the wives of the Moss and sheriff characters, (Kelly Macdonald and Tess Harper), who act as dutiful spouses with hardly any screen time.
Which leaves the bad guy, the psychotic, automaton killer, Chigurh, as the only other candidate for main character. At first I thought he was really scary, especially when he starts playing games of chance with people. He's an archetypal demon, the personification of evil; and as performed by Bardem, he can be quite frightening. That lasted for about ten or fifteen minutes. Then Chigurh simply degenerates into another Jason, Freddy, Michael Myers, or Schwarzzengger evil Terminator. He is one of those villains who is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. He's all-knowing, all powerful, and everywhere at once, sporting a Prince Valiant hairdo and dragging a slaughtering gun behind him. Remember the line from "Halloween," where a character says "...you can't kill the bogeyman"? Same deal.
Ultimately, then, what we get here is a movie without a central character to bring it together. There is not even a Hitchcockian "Psycho" central character, where one main character dies and another character takes over. This story leaves us with no one to root for and no one truly to care about, good or bad, not even a serious heavy.
Moving on, there is the matter of the message, the "meaning" I referred to earlier. Surely, there is one, for as I've said, the movie has "message" imprinted on every frame. But I was never sure what the message was. Is it that evil has always existed, that it goes on forever, and there is nothing anyone can do about it? The movie's characters strongly imply this. Or is it that people are more immune or indifferent to evil in America today and more prone simply to accept it? The "old men" like the sheriff long for a bygone time when young people addressed their elders as "sir" and "ma'am," as though the old days with their more conservative values were somehow better than today's more-liberal world. However, there was as much evil abroad in the past as there is today, so how are we any different? Perhaps, says the movie, we don't care anymore about the violence we see around us, desensitized as we are by newspaper headlines, gory movies, and violent TV shows? Yet is that anything new? Perhaps the movie is suggesting that we currently live in a hopeless, narcissistic, egotistical, self-consumed society? But is America any worse off in these regards than it ever was? Probably not, yet this alleged national ennui destroys some of the movie's characters, running them into the ground, forcing them to give up on life, to give up caring or trying to improve anything. As I see it, the movie is sending out conflicting messages, which would be fine if the movie had developed any of them, which it doesn't. For the viewer, it becomes an exercise in frustration.
Now, I know that fans of the movie (and they are legion) will think that I "just didn't get it," and they will be more than willing to explain to me exactly what the story "means." Sorry; I don't think that will do, not because I'm unwilling to listen but because the movie itself should be more self-evident than that. I don't dislike a fiction being deliberately ambiguous; I'd just like some assurance that the authors intended the ambiguity, that they had some idea what various interpretations audiences were likely to discuss. Here, frankly, I got the impression, for right or for wrong, that neither McCarthy nor the Coens knew what they were talking about.
OK, how about the movie's action? Well, I don't think I can name another supposedly "realistic" film (symbolism aside) with as much hyperbole or as many coincidental, unexplained happenings and unanswered questions as this one contains. Satire? Perhaps. Let me give you one example from early on the story: After finding the money and going home, Moss returns in the dead of night to the scene of the massacre (with a jug of water for the one gangster he noticed still clinging to life, I guess to show us that he's really a good guy at heart), and he arrives at the exact moment that another group of baddies appears on the scene. What are the odds? Fleeing for his life at this point, Moss outraces a pickup truck on foot. And wounded, he swims across a river. Then he shoots a vicious dog that's chasing him, just as the dog is about one inch from his throat. Yes, much of the action in "No Country" is stirring and fun in its way, but it's also mostly ridiculous when you think about it, and it's thinking that the Coens want us to do as we watch this film. In other words, they try to have it both ways, and I couldn't buy it.
I won't even go into the ending and the multiplicity of uncertainties it leaves hanging. Not that I ever expect a conventional movie ending or a clear resolution to a movie's dilemmas. Life isn't like that, so why should movies be any different. I can accept happy endings, sad endings, surprise endings, twist endings, or dangling endings. But at the same time, I do expect some kind of ending--to leave the theater with something upon which to reflect. I left "No Country for Old Men" with mixed feelings, asking "What the...?"
I appreciated that the Coens tried to turn the mythic West upside down by providing a healthy dose of irony to familiar fictional characters and situations. That they don't completely succeed is probably beside the point for most critics, but not for me. The fact is, the Coens sabotage their wonderfully understated style in "No Country" with the trivial substance of their narrative. Still, I enjoyed much of the film, despite its being merely a "could have been."
John's film rating: 6/10
The Movie According to Chris:
In American films, so-called character development often takes the form of connect-the-dots psychologizing. We learn all about the character's background (ugh!) so we understand exactly what turned him into the person he is today: Character X feels Emotion Y because of Event Z that happened during his childhood. See the tedious opening act of "Batman Begins" for a particularly galling example of this phenomenon. I agree with David Mamet: a character reveals himself through action. What he does is also who he is. No need to learn about his background (ugh!)
So I don't have a problem with the one-dimensionality of the characters in "No Country." Just as the basic plot is standard boilerplate for the genre (man finds bag of money from a crime gone wrong, tries to take it, gets chased by bad guys), the characters are also stock elements. My problem is simply with Chigurh. I have no idea what to make of him. This isn't a bad thing; hooray ambiguity! But I find him to be truly ridiculous, also not necessarily a bad thing but not, I suspect, what the Coens (or McCarthy) intended. The films' fans claim that Chigurh is a mythical character of some sort, a representative of death or fate. That makes sense in terms of the story, but Chigurh is so damned insubstantial that he can't carry the weight of myth on his cartoon shoulders. To me, he felt more like one of Dean Koontz's endless array of serial killers, each "new" one distinguished simply by a different set of eccentricities. I was on the fence about him (and the movie) until his encounter with the gas station clerk. There's just something about the way Bardem says "Friend-o" that makes me want to laugh rather than cringe.
The film does offer some imaginative and potent sequences, especially in the beginning. Moss's desperate run from the hound of hell showcases the Coens at their very best. I enjoyed the ending, too, particularly the way that the would-be protagonist (Jones, who is advertised as the film's star) has absolutely no impact on the resolution of the narrative. He might as well not have been there. I find that very sad, and not in a cheap or manipulative way; after all, it was the point of the movie at least according to the title. Still, it wasn't enough to sell me on "No Country."
There's no need to intellectualize. In fact, it's pretty straightforward. I just didn't "buy" Chigurh. He doesn't work for me. At all. I couldn't get past that.
Chris's film rating: 5/10
Certainly, this is a film that benefits from its wide, 2.35:1 ratio scope, given the amount of wide-open spaces it conveys. Buena Vista Home Entertainment do it justice in a transfer that captures all the beauty of the film's cinematography. Colors are bright and vivid without being gaudy or cartoonish. Definition is reasonably sharp for an SD disc, so the images stand out well. There is practically no grain to speak of, and, of course, its being a new film there are no blemishes anywhere. Of very minor concern, I noticed that faces on occasion appear a trifle too dark; there is a touch of glassiness to the picture; and on close inspection there is an almost imperceptible haloing. It's of little consequence.
There is hardly anything one can complain about in terms of the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, although, to be fair, the film doesn't call upon it to do very much most of the time. This is, as I've said above, a fairly quiet film, all the better to set off its violence more starkly. When loud effects do occur, they come across with all the more impact. The sound is mostly front-channel oriented, the surrounds conveying a little wind and water noise, an airplane flyover, a pleasant musical ambience, that kind of thing. But the soundtrack's biggest asset is the transparency of its midrange, the tiniest noises coming across in crystal clarity. You have to admire its small points.
The disc's primary extras are three featurettes. The first and most substantial item is "The Making of No Country for Old Men," twenty-four minutes. In it the filmmakers make their own observations on what the movie is about, with Jones calling it "a comedy horror chase." The second item is "Working With the Coens," eight minutes. It is a rather reverential, self-complimentary fluff piece on the greatness of the directors. The third item is "Diary of a Country Sheriff," six minutes about the character and personality of Jones's tradition-bound sheriff in the film.
The extras conclude with sixteen scene selections and a chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at four other Buena Vista products; English as the only spoken language; French and Spanish subtitles; English captions for the hearing impaired; and a handsome slipcover.
It is just possible after all this rambling that I have totally misread the movie and that the Coens meant it entirely as a send-up after all--a parody, a spoof of noir, action, slasher mysteries, and the darkest of all their black comedies. If so, I would have to praise them for their satirical purpose but criticize them for not being obvious enough to make their intentions clear to this lunkheaded reviewer. While I liked at least half of what I saw in "No Country for Old Men," the movie as a whole seems merely to be different for the sake of being different.