Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

[movies] No Country for Old Men

Along with everything else I did yesterday, I rented and watched the Coen brothers' adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel, No Country for Old Menimdb ]. I pretty much love the Coens' work, almost without exception, but this one was tough. In all the right ways tough, but still tough.

However, to me the most interesting thing about the movie was the string of broken resolutions. Over and over the film violated my ingrained narrative expectations as characters were established, fleshed out, then lost their way. In the case of this film, for the most part by dying violently.

In the Western literary and cinematic story telling tradition, we're highly conditioned to narratives where the sympathetic character triumphs. Or if they fail, they fail near the end of the narrative in some emotionally interesting fashion. That's our basic story arc — character in a setting with a problem tries and fails several times to resolve it in the face of rising stakes before attaining resolution (either positive or negative), followed by a brief coda of validation. I've just outlined 95% of Western literature.

No Country for Old Men absolutely does not do this. The everyman character with whom we the viewer have been identifying is killed 2/3 of the way through the film, and continues to be humiliated posthumously for failing at his valiant efforts. The fascinating bounty hunter barely makes it through three scenes. The good cop just quits in despair without ever bringing justice to bear. The bad guy wins by walking away with his goals met, unpunished for his misdeeds.

And this is real life. People don't always get what they want. Justice, in any literal or metaphorical sense of the term, is rarely resolved in three acts with loose ends tidied up. More often than not, things happen, we crawl from the wreckage and move on, and accountability is at best in the mind of the beholder.

All of this makes for a remarkably interesting and emotionally challenging film. Makes me want to read the McCarthy novel, to see what I can learn. Not that I particularly want to write books or stories that work this way, but there's hella technique in play here.

Did you see No Country for Old Men? What did you think?

Tags: movies, process, reviews

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