Despicable Snuff Film with Pseudo-Intellectual Pretensions1/10
"No Country for Old Men" is for the kind of film fan who remarks, "Gee, wasn't that murder a clever mise-en-scene?" and who asks, "What kind of lens do you think they used in that strangulation shot?" The skeleton of "No Country for Old Men" is a cheap, 78-minute, gun-monster-chase B movie. Javier Bardem plays Anton Chigurh, the monster. He is Frankenstein; he is Max Cady from "Cape Fear;" he is from your childhood nightmares. He may be death personified.
One of many completely implausible scenes: an arresting officer, defying any logic, turns his back on Chigurh. Chigurh, displaying the supple sinuosity of a Cirque du Soleil contortionist, or an orangutan, slips out of his handcuffs. This is done out of camera view, because for Bardem it would be impossible; thus the scene's implausibility. Chigurh then, in real time, strangles the young police officer to death on camera. This is an extended sequence. This is the payoff for "No Country for Old Men": watching one human being kill other human beings, in scene after scene after scene, using various weapons, including a captive bolt pistol usually used on livestock. Guess Chigurh couldn't get hold of a Texas chainsaw. This is a slasher flick for the pretentious.
Early on, there are well-done, if standard, chase scenes. A man outruns a car: not believable, but fun to watch. A pit bull chases this fleeing man down a whitewater river. The man reloads his gun at the very last moment (of course) and shoots the pit bull dead just as it is about to sink its teeth into the man. Later, in a hotel, a beeping transponder informs the killer where his prey hides. Your pulse may race and you may think that this is all leading up to something interesting. You will be disappointed.
Tommy Lee Jones, whose ear lobes appear to be metastasizing as he ages, wanders aimlessly through the film as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, delivering cornpone, homespun, cowboy poet ruminations that are more or less opaque in meaning. No doubt the film's fans are even now feverishly compiling a companion volume that decodes Bell's dreams and conveys their depth.
Woody Harrelson, late the bartender of the TV sitcom "Cheers," shows up for a completely pointless half-hour role that yanks the viewer right out of the movie. "What is Woody Harrelson doing here?" Some years back, some bored English majors decided that conventional narrative structure was not intellectual enuf, and decided to play games with narrative. "No Country for Old Men" plays these sorts of games. The viewer is invited to invest time getting to know characters who are eliminated from the plot in ways that convey no meaning and are not moving. The narrative flow is truncated and yet the movie keeps going; viewers ask themselves why the movie is continuing -- sometimes out loud, even in a movie theater -- this is supposed to be a deep, intellectual experience. It is not. It is merely annoying.
Other than bratty English major head games, pretty much the entire substance of "No Country for Old Men" is a series of murders and tortures committed by Chigurh, who may symbolize your high school's worst bully a bully so terrifying exactly because he targeted English majors. His victims are often courteous; their likability makes watching them be humiliated and then murdered an uncomfortable, and, given the film's structure, ultimately pointless exercise. Not only are the Coen Brothers torturing their characters, they also torment their ticket-buying audiences.
Chigurh's nice victims are often poor, rural, Southern, whites, the kind of people often not featured as positive, lead characters in Hollywood entertainments. They are often villains witness films like "Deliverance." Here they are murder victims. Chigurh is associated with Mexicans, part of a rising "dismal tide," as one Anglo character puts it. No matter how you feel about immigration, you may find this association of Mexicans with a rising tide of evil to be offensive.
The film's boosters insist that the movie offers three deep and shocking lessons: life doesn't always follow a neat narrative structure; evil often triumphs; and the old days were more peaceful and, nowadays, things are getting really bad. In truth, everyone walking in to the theater already knows the first two "lessons." No one needs the Coen brothers to inform him that life doesn't always follow a neat narrative structure, or that evil often triumphs. We expect filmmakers, and all artists, to offer us a more substantial thesis. As for the third "lesson," that the old days were more peaceful and things are getting really bad today -- have the Coens, or Cormac McCarthy, heard of Attila the Hun, or any number of other less-than-peaceful and courteous personages from our common human past? One might well be dubious about "No Country"'s "lessons." Visit internet discussion boards devoted to this movie, and you will find fans asking, not "What is fate?" or "What is the role of a good man in a bad world?" but questions like, "If Hannibal Lector and Anton Chigurh were locked in a room, who would come out alive?" Given such reflections, one is safe in concluding that the appeal of this film is its emphasis on graphic violence, rather than on any more advanced intellectual or artistic merit.