Wednesday, November 28, 2007


A week ago, David and I went to see No Country for Old Men. I didn’t really want to see it. All I knew was that it was a Coen Brothers movie. Oh, and that people kept mentioning it in the same breath as Blood Simple, which David made me watch a long time ago and…the less said about that, the better. So, to put it mildly, I had misgivings.

Anyway, this is not going to be a review of the movie. Not a fair one, at least. I will not be providing evidence for my claims. It’s not that I don’t know how. I taught critical essay writing to college freshmen for five years. I know more than anyone should ever know about providing evidence for claims. Go ahead and give me a C-. I’m in no mood.

The movie opens with a super-creepy looking man in a Prince Valiant haircut getting arrested, then strangling his captor with his handcuffs for a very long time. Then there’s a shaggy dude with a rifle who chances upon an field full of dead and dying men in trucks, with lots of blood and flies. Shaggy finds a satchel of money in their midst, and takes it back to his trailer. Prince Valiant, now free and in possession of a police car, pulls over a total stranger and carefully places a cattle slaughtering machine against said stranger's head to create a perfect hole, then steals his car. (In fact, this is the only way Prince Valiant gets around the entire movie. He blows a hole in someone’s head and then takes their stuff. It’s also how he gets snacks and hotel rooms.) All this happens in the first ten minutes, by which time I had a fine little migraine brewing.

Meanwhile, the shaggy dude, unnecessarily named Llewelyn (what the hell?) brings the bag of money back to his trailer, but decides he needs to go back to the pit of festering bodies to bring someone a drink of water (I am not making this up) and since a bunch of people and dogs try to kill him while he’s there (by shooting, running over, more shooting and dismemberment respectively) he deduces that he and his wife should get the hell out of Dodge because someone will be stopping by in the morning to kill them.

And we’re off and running—literally. Already I’m thinking this Llewelyn fellow must be the stupidest protagonist in the history of movies. Sure, the bag has two million dollars in it, but about a dozen people are lying around it, dead. Does that sound like easy money? Second (and Anthony Lane of the New Yorker brought this up): has the man heard of airplanes? He couldn’t spare the dough for a couple of first-class seats to Moorea?

No, in order for there to be a movie, we have to watch him alternately drive around the state of Texas and cower in dark motel rooms while Prince Valiant (who turns out to be named Anton) hunts him down and attempts to blow his head off with nary a howdyadoo. This is pretty much the entire movie, except that along the way about a hundred people have the bad fortune to wander into the frame and get their heads blown off, too.

Here are some of the things that made me turn to David when he said, “What did you think?” afterwards and shout, “That’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen!” with actual passion.

The protagonist is not worth rooting for. And based on what happens, apparently the Coens (and writer Cormac McCarthy) don’t think so, either. There’s no redemption, no arc, no climax, no denouement. No one learns anything, gains anything, or changes in any way.

The villain is an opaque psychopath. We have no idea what motivates him--events suggest he doesn’t even care that much about the money. I’ve been told I’m supposed to achieve ironic distance from the toying banter he initiates with his soon-to-be victims, and find it funny. I don’t. I resent the idea that I’m supposed to find outright butchery ironically funny, even in a movie. This is not a fantasy. Some people have said, “Oh, you don’t like violent movies.” Guess what—I did part of my graduate work on SLASHER FILMS. Violence has a place in movies, and can be quite satisfying in its way. But there is no distance from this savagery. It’s relentless and realistic; it could happen to anyone. That’s the message—over and over—getting a clean, perfect hole through your skull is meaningless and random. It gave me a stomachache.

There’s no story. Nothing happens. Unless you count someone running with a bag of money while someone else chases them a plot. I don’t. It’s a lazy framework that just provides an excuse for all the shooting.

Everyone (including my own dear husband) keeps saying, “But it’s pretty to look at. The cinematography is amazing.” So freakin’ what? Sunsets are pretty to look at, but I don’t want to stare at one for 2 and a half hours. Am I supposed to be lulled into some coma of cinematic appreciation because someone shot the sky so beautifully? I’m too busy feeling sick about how they shot the heads. And don’t get me started on how there are no women in this movie, except lovely, doomed Carla Jean, who has the stupid luck to be married to Llewelyn and is swiftly shunted out of the way so the boys can play tag.

I could go on all day about how hideous an experience it was to watch this movie, and how much it galls me that the critics are having an orgy with it. I could tell you about how I had nightmares afterwards, and how in subsequent days I kept checking all the locks when I was at home (not that locks would help me—Anton uses the cow killer to blow out any lock.) But instead I’ll leave you with a quote from Andrew Sarris of The New York Observer, the lone dissenter amongst the critics, who came up with the word “nihilism” to describe these proceedings, which he says he “cannot look at…in any other way than as an exercise in cosmic futility” and likens to “a quick in-and-out visit to hell.” Maybe I’ll write him a fan letter and invite him to our Oscar party, and the two of us can stick our fingers in our ears and shout “LA LA LA!” over Nicole Kidman handing the Coens the Academy Award for Best Picture. Which will totally happen.


Anonymous said...

Maybe you could tell us how you REALLY feel...:-)

David said...

Yes, like most to the critics, I do like this movie, but I also loved going to the live show of So You think You Can Dancing, so I can't be all evil. :)

The first two killings in this movie are brutal, and you don't what to see that again (well, not even the first time around.) They do happen in the first minutes of the movie. But unlike typical Hollywood violence, where the on screen brutality escalates to more rediculousness, this movie stops showing, leaving worst moments off screen, but still in your mind. So in someways it makes the movie feel more real, leaving you either horrified by the whole thing, or amazed that the filmmakers can take you on this ride that seems at any moment to be completely unsafe be to witnessing, yet you survive the thriller and you have consumed all your Redvines.

Not that I'm for violence in movies, I'm totally against the mainstream in another critically acclaimed violent film, "Saving Private Ryan". Hate that movie, and to the same intensity as Samantha hated No County... And not for the opening scenes which are so extreme, but for everything that follows. While Spielberg manipulates the audience through graphic on screen violence to make you like Tom Hanks, not the anti-war film seems set out to be (I could explain but it to too long.) Spielberg broke his own rules, either make a film depicting the absurdity of war, or make a Hollywood film about heroes, not both.

I believe the Coens brothers didn't break the rules of the world they created. Nihilistic thriller it is, from start to finish. And, yes, beautiful shoot to...


Samantha said...

Well, Mr. Better Half, I appreciate your spirited rebuttal. ;)

I'm especially interested in what you say about "Saving Private Ryan," but since I never saw it, I can't weigh in. Readers?

As for the fact that the Coens stop showing most of the gore after the first few murders, that is true, but it was of no comfort to me. I actually believe what is not shown in movies can be far more horrifying than what is: as example, I refer you to "Silence of the Lambs," where someone shows Clarisse a photo of one of Hannibal's victims, describes it, but does not show us. Just the description had my imagination prompting me to lose my lunch.

I do not begrudge the Coens their right to create this nihilistic world. I just begrudge everyone lauding it as a cinematic masterpiece. Or maybe I just begrudge the time I spent trapped in the dark with it.

As for you not being all evil? Darling, you protest too much. ;)


Anonymous said...

I actually thought (I haven't seen the movie) that the New Yorker review wasn't that great. I mean, it was a respectful review, but it didn't feel as if the critic really wanted me to go and see it..and reading the review I decided I definitely didn't want to see it...and wait for it..I LOVED Blood Simple. reading visceral, complex, impassioned reviews of movies that don't feel the need to stick to a thesis (thanks for that was great reading!)!

Anonymous said... comments after. I totally agree with what David said about Saving Private Ryan btw.

Anonymous said...

Since I get a little anxious having to watch the scary opening scene of "Finding Nemo" (that mean fish eats the mommy and all her little eggs!), I have a strong suspicious that this movie wouldn't be for me.

Strangely, though, I love reading mysteries that often have quite violent/nihilistic themes (anything by James Lee Burke, for example). Why is it that reading about violence is ok, but watching it is too much?

Great post, Sam! xxx lix

Marlene said...

I'm with you, my sister, in regards to the wanton depiction of random violence. I know this is how it sometimes happens, but unless somebody wants to examine it socially, I want nothing to do with it. The suggestion seems to me to be that they are glorifying it otherwise. I don't want to suggest that I know what the value of this particular movie is, having not yet seen it (although I loved your brilliant review), but the movie of wanton violence, which is so popular right now among high brow and low brow filmmakers, makes me sick.

Also, I won't--as you know--sleep for weeks after something like that. I'll sleep, when the sun comes up, outside Jacob's door to protect him. And what I want to know is this: why doesn't everyone feel that way? What's been turned off in us? How can movies like the SAW series be popular? How? Maybe the Coen brothers do it more brilliantly, but isn't there something brutal, at bottom, that we're dancing around gleefully?

Anonymous said...

the movie was simply bad. The point of the violence in an American movie is that after they "push him too far" he blows them to hell. Our hero's may have gotten scruffier but they still have to win in the end, otherwise the movie is a twisted teen age gore fantasy where no plot is required. The makers of this movie are like spoiled kids giving you a beautifully wrapped piece of dogshit for a birthday present.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't going to go see the movie. (I hate violence for the sake of violence which has been my Coen Brothers experience thus far.) Now I'm really not going to see the movie.