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Jay Lake
Date: 2010-12-28 06:31
Subject: [movies] No Country for Old Men
Security: Public
Tags:movies, process, reviews
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?

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Gary: freethinking
User: andysocial
Date: 2010-12-28 14:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
When I watched the movie last year, I was struck by its absolute mastery of cinema, including violating many of our expectations in the ways you explain. And I also realized that I'd really rather never see the film again. It was great, and awful. I felt beaten at the end.
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User: cathshaffer
Date: 2010-12-28 15:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I had exactly the same thoughts you did. The Coen brothers broke the rules of narrative, and it was intellectual interesting, but also emotionally unsatisfying. My husband and I watched it over two nights, at a rare time when we didn't have a kid in the house. When it was over, we looked at each other and said, "What the hell was that?" I think it had artistic merit, but was too depressing to really recommend.
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The Ferrett
User: theferrett
Date: 2010-12-28 15:17 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I thought exactly what you did. And when people asked me about it, I said, "It's a movie for people who have seen too many movies." In other words, if you've seen enough expected narratives that closure's become boring, then No Country For Old Men is going to be exciting and new in weird ways, as it plays with your expectations.

Otherwise, it's just going to be one big ball of empty for you.
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User: sheerkhan
Date: 2010-12-28 15:23 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I saw it, and for the reasons you mention above, it's one of my favorite films. It also satisfies me emotionally in a way that has nothing to do with plot resolution. Seeing a story achieve what that one did left me with a weird dark sort of satisfaction that suits me just fine. I also read the novel, and it is a little more brilliant, even. Man, I still think about it and just can't quite get over it. I'll be returning to it from time to time over the years the same way I will with the film.
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selfavowedgeek: Cormac McCarthy
User: selfavowedgeek
Date: 2010-12-28 15:32 (UTC)
Subject: Trufan here . . .
Keyword:Cormac McCarthy
Interesting that McCarthy wrote NCfOM as a screenplay first back in the 80s (?), trunked it, then retooled it as a novel. I read the novel before seeing the movie, so the novel informed virtually all of my expectations. Other than a tweak to the film's ending re: return to the hotel room, it's a nearly flawless adaptation of the novel.

But, back to your question:

I thought it was definitely not a spoon-feed-the-audience Western. It's a slogfest and slugfest and definitely forces the viewer's hand at each turn in terms of building up hope that one's attention *might* be rewarded. It kept me wondering, at least, "Of what is past, or passing, or to come" from Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium," from which the novel takes its title. Great stuff, all in all, but definitely Cormac at his twisty best with narratives. The only other novel of his that reminds me of the utter depression/despondency that NCfOM gave me was The Crossing, second book in the Border Trilogy.

That sense of life-is-life and all the ambiguities that can and will follow is a hallmark of McCarthy's approach to his Act 3's, for what they're worth.

BTW, the novel's narrative is sprinkled with introspective mini-chapters from Sheriff Ed Tom Bell's POV. That's the only part of the filmmaking that didn't quite pan out for me.

Main takeaway from the narrative: We're all fighting a losing battle, and even Death has a bad day every now and then.
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Clint Harris
User: wendigomountain
Date: 2010-12-28 16:02 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I absolutely hated this movie the first time I saw it. Nihilistic. Senselessly violent. And the end was so non-sequitur to the rest of the movie I felt cheated.

By the fifth time I saw it, I realized it had a lot to offer in terms of stark backdrop and characters. These were people we have all known in some capacity, and though I think they were undone by trying to leave their lowest energy level and become greater in spite of themselves, I cared about them.

That and I've never watched a movie I've genuinely hated more than once. It's a keeper.
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Michael Curry: brutal
User: mcurry
Date: 2010-12-28 16:09 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I thought it was brilliant, and the fact it didn't follow all of the standard narrative tracks was one of the things that made it great. The bleakness that resulted didn't really keep me from investing in the movie, and in fact I've re-watched it a couple of times now and will likely do so again someday.
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Matthew S. Rotundo: CE3K
User: matthewsrotundo
Date: 2010-12-28 16:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Love the Coen brothers, but this is not one of my favorites. Tommy Lee Jones does nothing of use throughout the entire film; he's like Jar Jar Binks, but not as cute. And I don't really mind the bad guy triumphing at the end, but I do mind that at the denouement, Kelly Macdonald's character, the only one who directly challenges Javier Bardem's twisted code of honor (by refusing to play his game), is given nothing more interesting to do than to beg for her life, like all the previous victims.

The subversion of story principles simply for the sake of subverting story principles doesn't strike me as brilliant. Rather, it comes across as a childish thumbing of the nose at one's audience. I had a similar reaction to Barton Fink. Sometimes the Coens outsmart themselves, I think.

And this is real life.

Debatable point, but who gives a shit? I've heard the "real life" argument trotted out in defense of torture porn films, too. It doesn't wash. I think it's a cop-out. There's a difference between verisimilitude and reality. The former is essential for a good story, the latter is often trite and dull.
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User: adelheid_p
Date: 2010-12-28 19:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I have not see No Country for Old Men, but I did see True Grit by the Coen brothers and I loved it.
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Paul Weimer: Movies
User: princejvstin
Date: 2010-12-28 19:35 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Bleak. Powerful. Well acted and constructed.

But not a movie I am eager to watch again anytime soon.
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Sherwood Smith
User: sartorias
Date: 2010-12-28 20:04 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Watched some of it with film student kid, then decided life was too short for trite manipulation of a certain type, in spite of terrific cinematographic artsiness. The "this is real life" banner is too often the bloody shirt on the mound of moral superiority, but as for superior storytelling? Um, no, it's just another form of storytelling.
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User: bram452
Date: 2010-12-28 20:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I thought it was a good sermon, but a shitty story.

I've seen it twice now, and I love lots of individual moments, but all in all, meh.
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User: e_bourne
Date: 2010-12-28 21:29 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I thought that, in the end, chaos conquered everything. Even the unstoppable evil was downed by the chaos that he, himself, perpetrated. Did he get away? Maybe, maybe not (I tend to the maybe not school). But the world that allowed his brand of evil to function has been changed irrevocably by modernity and he is doomed along with the other old men.

Randomness has no place for 50/50, no place for heroes, no place for black and white. It's not country for old men. The young boys and Mexican thugs are on the path to creating a modern world ruled by chaos, greed, and a brutality that is truly frightening. Far more so than the "unstoppable evil" of Anton, who at least played by his own rules.

That's what I think. It's one of my favorite movies that I can only watch once in a while because it's so very harsh.
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User: shaolingrrl
Date: 2010-12-28 22:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm of the "I admire what this movie did" school, with no following "but--". If I'm really intellectually engaged in a movie, that's often good enough for me because they're over so quickly and I like to think. If they have eye candy all the better (The Prestige, which wasn't as mentally stimulating, but had Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, so I'm happy) but this one didn't need eye candy. Don't know if I'd watch it again, but that's because I hardly every watch movies twice. Too many movies out there for that.
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Kenneth Mark Hoover
User: kmarkhoover
Date: 2010-12-28 23:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I saw it and liked it a lot. But my "writer radar" went off when there was no resolution to the story.
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User: alumiere
Date: 2010-12-29 10:35 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I went to see this movie on one of the first dates I had with my now primary partner; it was not a great choice for a date night - especially with someone who was totally unfamiliar with Cormac McCarthy, and barely aware of the Coen Brothers. But we both enjoyed it, although I think we spent several hours afterward with me trying to explain some of the choices in the film.

The bleakness and violence resonate with me as being all too real, and something often brushed aside by many people IRL. It brings to mind a whole bunch of films/directors I love, including Last Exit to Brooklyn, Naked Lunch, Wings of Desire, Chinatown, Memento, Jim Jarmusch, Sam Peckinpah, Peter Greenaway, and Terry Gilliam. Although how all those relate, I can't clarify.

As for the interpretation of the book, I haven't read NCfOM, but the film felt like all of the McCarthy I've read. Even my favorite thus far, The Crossing, which is considered less bleak than his early work, is incredibly depressing in many ways. His work moves incredibly slowly, and while I understand to some extent the comparisons to Faulkner, I find McCarthy's work to be glacial in comparison.
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User: bram452
Date: 2010-12-29 14:21 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I respect your opinion about McCarthy's take on violence, but I don't share it. Rather than realistic, it feels fetishized and sentimental to me. But I have something of a pet peeve about equating violence and emotional bleakness with realism. Some writers are able to capture despair convincingly (or at least convincingly for me). Maureen McHugh comes to mind. In my admittedly limited exposure, McCarthy struck me as using bleakness and violence in lieu of realism.
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