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November 14, 2007

No Country For Old Men

No Country For Old Men is faithful to more than just the content its source text. From the first frame out, Joel and Ethan Coen attempt to approximate the prosaic essence of Cormac McCarthy's novel into cinematic terms. The title fades in and out quickly; they get the text out of the way as quickly as possible before exchanging one form for another with a hard cut to the first image of a desert at dawn. That cut defines the rhythm of the rest of the picture, punctuative and terse. I counted no more than four or five dissolves in the whole film. And the sound - the sound is exclusively diegetic. We never hear anything that we're not seeing (or at least we don't think we do); the only notes of Carter Burwell's musical score that I noticed was a brief burst of brassy tone undercutting a violent car carsh.

It's an effective approach, and on a certain level it works. But it's only in that opening scene, a succession of static images that follow the progress of the sun's ascent over the barren Texas landscape, and in its bookend at the opposite side of the film that I felt the Coens acheived something that was more than merely mimetic. In those moments, they create something with film that is on par to what McCarthy does with language. The rest of the movie, God's honest truth, I could take or leave, and since I've still got the book sitting on the shelf I'm likely to leave it. But that beginning, and especially that ending - they're going to stick.

It's an ending, though, is one that's going to anger a lot of people. It was met with confused laughter and annoyed whispers in the theater last night. I couldn't quite believe it myself; only a few seconds before that final cut to black, I was thinking about how brilliant it would be if they ended the film there. I won't talk about it here; it's not an ending that can be spoiled in the conventional sense because it does not effect the plot of the film, and while it could be described in deconstructive terms, but that would rob it of its power. I will say that, should viewers find it frustrating or irresolute, they might think back to Tommy Lee Jones' narration at the film's opening, and consider the context that sets for the story, and how the last scene resolves it.

Another thing: listening to Jones recount his dream there in that last scene crystallized even further the connection I drew between No Country and The Road when I reviewed that novel last fall:

McCarthy's embodiment of mankind's capability for - and, indeed, his inclination towards - not just violence but primal, intrinsic evil has become amorphous, has disseminated himself; has, essentially, maintained the upper hand in the mythic equation simply by remaining out there and irresolute. It is a bleak ending, leaving the good men in the world flickering against the growing darkness. One year later, with The Road, McCarthy has, in a sense, offered an answer to this open ending. This new novel takes place in the aftermath of Chigurh's manifestation; the evil of man has done nearly all it can, and in its wake death has claimed the land, the birds, the fish in the sea.

No Country For Old Men doesn't need The Road to be complete on its own terms, but considering them in conjunction elucidates each one. The Coens' film gazes into the same turpitude that the book did, but it reaches further forward, bridging the gap between the two novels on its terms. Listen to those words at the end; listen to that dream. In those moments, with its own language, the movie stands square alongside the work it was derived from.

Posted by David Lowery at November 14, 2007 12:52 AM


Nicely done my man. I just walked in the door from the film for the SECOND time and, while I appreciate your point of view, I think there's much, much more going on in between the beginning and end.

I started the book before the start of this semester (from hell) and since we have a week off for Thanksgiving, I'm going to tear through it before seeing the film a third time. I'm simply in love/awe/lust with the movie. It's just so fucking great on so many levels-one of which is how frigging pissed "mainstream" audiences are getting at it. In both my screenings, they were none too pleased several times throughout.

I also love your tie-in between NO COUNTRY and THE ROAD. I read and loved THE ROAD and can't wait to read this again after reaing NO COUNTRY.

I hold zero hope for the upcoming film adaptation of THE ROAD. Ugh.

Posted by: don at November 14, 2007 10:58 PM

Hey Don, I'm glad you liked it so much. No doubt, it's a pretty stellar film. I think my disconnect from it simply had to do with my attachment to McCarthy's writing. He's my favorite novelist, I've studied every word he's written, and while I think this particular book and the Coen Brothers were a match made in heaven, the adaptation was so perfectly adapted that it almost negated itself for me. That doesn't mean I don't appreciate what it does (and does so well), it's simply that it was almost too predictable for me. Both narratively, of course, and formally.

I'm splitting hairs with my criticism here, of course. I'm curious as to what you'll think of the book, having seen the movie. Chances are you may end up liking the latter more, I suspect...

Oh, and I'm glad you likedLow And Behold so much, too!

Posted by: Ghostboy at November 15, 2007 2:55 AM