No Country for Old Men

This was my first Cohen Brothers movie, yeh I know, so many ‘good’ films I’ve not seen. I’ve never claimed to be an intelligent movie watcher, I enjoy escapism in the cinema and I’m bound to select movies that offer that. It’s not that I find movies which make you think unenjoyable, it’s just that habit causes me to pick certain films over others. But, I thought I’d buy No Country for Old Men and give it a shot, not least because I love Tommy Lee Jones.

The film is an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s book of the same name. I’ve not read the book, but by all reports it’s a faithful adaptation, taking most (all?) of the movie dialog straight from the book. It tells the story of a Texas Sherriff (Tommy Lee Jones) trying to understand a drug-deal gone wrong, following the trail of the guy who’s running with the money (Josh Brolin) and the killer who is also chasing the cash (Javier Bardem).

It would be a mistake to think this movie is about either Brolin’s (Llewelyn Moss) character or Bardem’s (Anton Chigurh). It’s about Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, and how he is coping with a new kind of crime and a new kind of criminal since the increase in cross-border drug traffic with Mexico. Bell provides a voice over for various parts of the movie and the implication is he’s narrating the story, at least in part, and the claim therefore is that scenes in which Bell appears are presented as his view and skewed by his perception and his re-telling.

The overall pace of the movie is pretty slow, even when good guys are running from bad guys you get the feeling they’re taking their pretty littl’ time of it. Despite the pace it is gripping and every single scene moves the story forward in some way and is engaging. The dialog is first class and all the lead characters provide excellent performances. There is tension although the pace means it’s never quite edge of your seat tension, and it’s easy to empathise with Moss even if it’s not always easy to like him. Chigurh is enigmatic and obviously deadly, and every time he’s on screen you get a sense of how quietly insane he is, and how at risk anyone near him may be. Bell is understated, subtle and superb. There’s no hint of Marshal Samuel Gerard here, not even a glimpse.

And yet despite the obvious quality of everything, I was left dissapointed. In order to provide my opinion I’m going to need to spoil certain aspects of the plot, so if you’re planning to watch this movie, and don’t want the major plot elements spoiled, stop reading now.

The first three quarters of the movies focuses on a short period of time, or apparently short, during which Moss tries to evade Chigurh. Then suddenly time accelerates, and we see the death of Moss, his mother-in-law, his wife, Bell’s retirement and Chigur’s accident which must have taken place over a few weeks. Once we’re done with those, the movie ends, Bell retiring and discussing two dreams he’s had with his wife, obviously trying to cope with having lots of free time on his hands.

The actual end of the movie is abrupt and disorientating. That may be because I’m far too used to a certain style of movie ending, or it may be because I really didn’t grasp until after the end that the story is about Bell, and not in fact, about Moss and Chigurh. Perhaps I’m stupid and should have noticed it earlier, perhaps the movie is too subtle for me, maybe I’m not cut out to watch movies which don’t conform to the ‘hollywood’ standard of having some kind of end-game.

Reading online after I’d watched it revealed what I had missed, that it’s about Bell, that he’s narrating, that the scene towards the end in the motel room where Bell might or might not see Chigurh is pivotal and then the film is showing us the lie that Bell tells, that he never met Chigurh, never caught up with him. The dreams are a manifestation of this, telling us how Bell regrets he wasn’t strong enough, feels he has failed in his role, and worries how his father will view him.

I’m used to missing things in movies, subtle references, and I don’t mind having them pointed out, but when I miss what appears to be the very reason for the story to exist it’s dissapointing. I question whether I wasn’t paying enough attention, or whether I’m stupid.

However, there’s that old addage that if you have to explain a joke, maybe it was never funny. Of course, proponents of the joke would claim that some find it funny, and hence it shouldn’t need to be explained. I’m sure some people got the story on their first viewing, I’m sure others got it on their second or third, and I’m sure some people discussed it and worked it out with friends and felt satisfied. For me though, the movie watching experience is a totality of the watching period involved, I want to be satisfied at the end of it, happy that I understood, pleased with how it all turned out.

I don’t need happy endings, but I do absolutely need an ending that I understand.

No Country for Old Men is a technically briliant movie, with an amazing cast, engaging dialog and beautiful cinamatography. I might even watch it again. But I won’t look back at the time I spent watching it and think ‘that was enjoyable’ or ‘that was worth it’, just ‘that was dissapointing’. At any stage, I was on some level enjoying the watching experience, but as a total experience at the end, I was left wondering what it had been about and why.