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March 10, 2008 | by  | in Film |
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No Country for Old Men – “Art for Art’s Sake”

Why can’t filmmakers just let high art speak for itself? Both this film and its recent Oscar rival, There Will Be Blood, employ the self-consciously “artistic” film technique of abandoning opening credits and even going so far as to replace a simple “written by” credit with the much more fancy-sounding “written for the screen by”, suggesting that the Coen brothers carry a definite sense of accomplishment with this film. This would prove embarrassing if the film failed to live up to its immodest promise. Thus it’s infinitely fortunate that No Country For Old Men succeeds.

The setting is North America circa 1980. Texan good-oldboy Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) stumbles across a botched drug deal, which leads to a satchel full of drug money nearby in the desert. This sets off a shit-storm that has to be seen to be believed, as Moss finds himself subsequently pursued on all sides by county sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Jones), relentless psychopath Anton Chigurh (Bardem) and bounty hunter Carson Wells (Harrelson), all after Moss for their own separate reasons connected to the mysterious satchel.

The Coens have broken from form with No Country and their last film The Ladykillers (previously an Alec Guinnes flick), adapting the work of others instead of filming their own tales. However No Country’s resounding theme of the hopelessness in the pursuit of easy cash is lifted straight out of the brothers’ Fargo. This is definitely “darker” Coen territory, as the very depths of humanity are plundered at times by those in pursuit of the cash, with “overmatched” sheriff Ed Tom Bell sadly watching on as he sees the country around him evolve into something bleaker and uglier than he can handle.

This bleakness of human spirit is nowhere more evident than in the character of Anton Chigurh, dominating every scene in a ruthless turn by Javier Bardem. The Coen brothers here unleash their most fearsome anti-hero yet, a man whose motivation and moral bankruptcy are never fully explained – and the most terrifying prospect to the audience is that which we don’t understand. No character is given too detailed a backstory, enhancing one of the film’s other central ideas – this film is concerned with fate, with what lies on the horizon, and whatever lies in the past makes no difference to what the future has in store.

And yet, is the film perhaps a little too ambiguous? The ending proposes few resolutions, and while this aids the film’s staying power with the audience, it does feel, again, selfconsciously arty as if the Coens are making a deliberate effort to be as vague as possible in order to score artistic points with their critics. While the expected Hollywood-style ending is thankfully absent, the ending feels more of an interruption than a climax, even though there is admittedly no further for the story to go on.

However, the Coens can only work with the source novel they have, and as such still manage to craft a third act that upsets on an emotional level as well as an intellectual one. There are no happy endings to be found here, and as the title suggests of sheriff Ed Tom, perhaps this is an America where old-fashioned morals and behaviour is slowly being phased out in favour of the cold-blooded, selfish attitudes of people today. All, as Fargo’s Marge Gunderson would have put it, “for a little bit of money”.

Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Woody Harrelson.

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Comments (4)

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  1. Uther Dean says:

    Both ‘There Will Be Blood’ and ‘No Country For Old Men’ are adaptations of novels. WGA law states that a ‘Written for the screen by’ credit is used when ever the majority of a film’s content is translated or adapted from another media in the just the same way that they insist on the credit being ‘Screenplay by’ if there is any evidence of any other writers contributing even slightly (that is as opposed to sacred and rare ‘Written by’ credit).
    So, sorry, pal. They’re not using that credit to be arty wankers (there are really only two obvious cases of that and those are the ubiquitous ‘Inspired by’ credit in ‘Twelve Monkeys’ and David Slade putting the colourist’s name in the opening credits of ‘Hard Candy’); they’re doing it because they’re following the rules. Which is arguably the least “arty” thing someone can do.
    So, research next please.

  2. Ron Marx says:

    Thank you for being you Uther Dean

  3. Uther Dean says:

    My pressure.

  4. Andrew McGrath says:

    Acknowledged, mucho apologies

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