'No Country': No Satisfaction

Friday, November 9, 2007

I appreciate "No Country for Old Men" for the skill in the film craft. I understand "No Country for Old Men" for its penetrating disquisition on narrative conventions and its heroic will in subverting them. I admire "No Country for Old Men" for the way it tightens its grip as it progresses, taking us deeper and deeper into a hellish world.

I just don't like it very much.

Derived from the hyper-violent Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, it's a high-end "literary" thriller that traffics as much in ideas as in thrills, sometimes to its own detriment. It follows as a Vietnam vet (the time is the '80s) antelope hunting comes across a Texas drug deal gone bad. Bodies, guns, blood, flies and folly are everywhere on the arid plains. He finds a huge chunk of money and makes off with it; alas, having promised a dying man a drink of water, he heads back, scotching his successful getaway. He is observed by other drug smugglers, and the chase begins.

You can't say it cuts to the chase. There was never anything to cut from to the chase. It's all chase, which means that it offers almost zero in character development. Each figure is given, a la standard thriller operating procedure, a single moral or psychological attribute and then acts in accordance to that principle and nothing else, without doubts, contradictions or ambivalence. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin; see story on Page 33), the laconic vet who finds the stash, is pure Stubbornness. His main pursuer, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem in Robert Wagner's haircut from "Prince Valiant"), is Death, without a pale horse. Subsidiary chaser Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) is Pride, or possibly Folly. Tommy Lee Jones appears in the role of Melancholy Wisdom; he's a lawman also trying to find Llewelyn but not very hard. He'd much rather address the camera and soliloquize on the sorry state of affairs of mankind, though if he says anything memorable, I missed it.

By narrative convention, the movie is building toward a confrontation between Moss and Chigurh. We know it, we expect it, the rules of the thriller mandate its necessity. "No Country for Old Men" then vigorously subverts the convention. It's meant to be "ironic," with that big capital I. Instead it's unsatisfying, with a capital U. Nobody goes to the movies for the irony. They go for the satisfaction.

-- Stephen Hunter

No Country for Old Men R, 120 minutes Contains extreme violence. At Landmark's Bethesda Row, AMC Loews Shirlington and Landmark's E Street Cinema. No Country for Old Men R, 120 minutes Contains extreme violence. At Landmark's Bethesda Row, AMC Loews Shirlington and Landmark's E Street Cinema.


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