No Country for Old Men

Joel & Ethan Coen

5/10 (butchering a modern literary classic)

This is the worst Best Picture winner since “Crash,” and for many years before that as well. And don’t even get me started on “Crash.” (I would just like to state for the record that I hated it as soon as it came out, so my current opinion has nothing to do with any backlash.)

“No Country” is the perfect Oscar-bait: great acting, terrific dialogue, beautiful cinematography, and nobody knows what the hell it´s trying to say. I saw it when it came out and, though enchanted for the great part of the movie, I left thinking “Huh?” Then everybody started loving it, so I just figured I had missed something (which surprised me since I considered myself fairly intelligent and a huge Coen Bros. fan).

I decided to read the book and then see it again. The book, I can confidently state, is perhaps the best novel of the new millenium, and one of the greatest American novels ever. And McCarthy is IMO one of the — if not the — greatest living writers. In No Country, he crafts a poetic novel about the demise of morality in modern civilization. Not exactly light reading, but it goes by oh so fast.

So I finished the book and was pumped to see the movie, excited that I would now “get” it. And as I fnished watching for the second time, I sat there on the couch thinking, “Huh?”

It was only then that I realized that the movie was actually not very good, and that everyone who loved it was most likely afraid of appearing stupid for disliking something that they “just didn’t understand.” So now that I’ve satisfied you that I did actually give the movie a fair chance, I’ll move on to the film’s actual problem.

The acting is terrific (highlights are Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, and Llewelyn’s wife who in real life has a thick Scottish accent; lowlight is Tommy Lee Jones´overrated performance), the dialogue is authentic (most of it cribbed straight from the book), and the cinematography is gorgeous (with the exception of that CGI crow that Chigurh shoots at while crossing the bridge — I sat there wondering in disbelief “Whoa, what is that thin– It looks like a monster — Wait– is that a bird? Is that supposed to look real?”. . . It looked like something out of “Labyrinth.”). Each scene is a beautiful work of art in itself, and the whole thing is captivating. But still, at the end you feel like something is lacking, like it doesn’t all come together well. That´s usually when you know that the problem has to do with either the script, the direction or the editing (i.e. somewhere under the domain of the Coens).

The main problem is that, inexplicably, while adapting the novel the Coens decide to omit almost all of the monologues given by Jones´ Sheriff. In the book, most chapters begin with a monologue that vaguely discusses the theme of the work: the imminent chaos of a modern world that has lost its moral compass. McCarthy uses this technique to give an overarching theme and cohesion to his simple crime tale, and it works brilliantly. Then for some reason the Coens decide that it’s unnecessary, and they condense all of these monologues into two voiceovers that envelope the narrative. And what happens? Surprise! It leaves the story without any cohesion or moral authority.

In the book, where the Sheriff is the de facto protagonist, you are not jarred and left wondering what the hell is going on when Llewelyn gets killed. In the film, where the Coens made Llewelyn into the main character, this scene effectively derails the entire movie, all due to a significant adaptation blunder. The audience is left wondering, “What, the Sheriff is the main character now? What the fuck?” It’s at this point that the honest viewers should think, “Wait a second, this actually sucks!” while the cowardly ones will think “God I have no idea what´s going on, and I’m supposed to like this! What will I do when people ask me? (pauses while nervously drumming fingers together) . . . I better tell them that it was intelligent and ambiguous.”

It is horrible story-telling, but the Coens get away with it because they´re “faithful to the source material.”

This is actually the only problem of the film (again, besides Jones’ weak performance and the CGI crow), but it’s a HUGE one! It destroys the entire effect and turns McCarthy’s masterpiece into a muddle. Newsflash for the critics: McCarthy´s book is not that difficult to understand. It is a powerful and cohesive statement on the dangerous loss of morality in modern civilization. Only when it’s butchered by the Coens does it become “ambiguous.”

17 March 2010

Other Reviews for “No Country”


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