The Best Picture Project – No Country For Old Men (2007)

No Country For Old Men

Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

From the novel by Cormac McCarthy

Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem and Kelly Macdonald

There was a great debate in my house after watching No Country For Old Men, between me and my almost-14 year-old daughter, about whether No Country For Old Men, your 2007 Best Picture winner, was a more deserving film that what was presumably it’s fiercest competition, There Will Be Blood.  And since she and I both generally agree that There Will Be Blood was the superior film, it’s not really much of a debate. 

Back in late 2006, or early 2007, when I heard that the Coen’s were adapting Cormac McCarthy’s novel I went ahead and bought a copy of the book and read it.  I’d never read anything by McCarthy but figured if the Coen’s felt him worthy of adaptation he couldn’t be all bad.  Unfortunately, McCarthy can be a bit of a difficult writer – his prose is spare, unbroken by quotation marks, and though it might sometimes be ‘lyrical’ it can sometimes feel like a slog. 

First edition coverThese problems all infect No Country For Old Men, but worse is that it’s something of a mystery novel without much investigation or mystery to it.  Never mind that much of the novel depends on coincidence or plain stupidity of the people involved to drive the plot – after all, who is going to sit still for a guy who wants to just touch your forehead with this thing attached to the air tank he’s hauling around?  On the up side, the Coen’s, even in failure, were interesting directors so I knew they could work with the material to make something great.

The movie was much in keeping with the tone of the novel.  It was spare, there was hardly any music throughout, and for a crime movie, could not have been any more understated and laconic – so laconic in fact that Tommy Lee Jones frequently seems to be asleep.  Unfortunately, the movie goes beyond keeping the tone but keeps the novel itself, warts and all.  Josh Brolin is shot off screen.  Tommy Lee visits an old friend and talks about some long dead relation before sitting down to breakfast with his wife and talking about some dream he had.  The villain is hit by a car – dues ex machine style – on the way back from murdering Brolin’s wife, only to wind up stumbling away from the accident.  After that?  Nothing.  It might be one of the least satisfying endings in the history of movies.

When the movie came out it was hailed by critics everywhere, won a boatload of awards, first for the Coen’s, then for Javier Bardem, both of which cause me to scratch my head a bit.  The Coen’s win isn’t overly troubling.  Sure, they’ve done better work elsewhere – Fargo, anybody? – but that doesn’t mean the victory here doesn’t feel a bit like a make-up Award.  Bardem’s, though, is a bit more confusing.  Throughout the movie he is made to seem like a super-villain but really, he hardly seems villainous at all, or even frightening.  Certainly, he kills people, but only in the most random ways and he’s basically a blank canvas: if he’s frightening, it’s only because we invest him with it, not because he actually is frightening.  His character is basically ludicrous, a fact borne out when you make one little change to his performance and instead of frightening, you get something like this:

 

(By the way, if that video didn’t embed here quickly enough, just jump over to Youtube and watch it, but only if you promise to come right back.)

 

 

What’s funny is that, McCarthy films all seem to suffer from the same problem – at least the two I’ve seen – which is that the source material, as written, is not exactly what we want to see.  I couldn’t imagine any better book that The Road – no slog, that – but the movie, so faithful to the book, was deadly depressing.  There was no hope, the wasteland was just a wasteland, and everybody is bound to starve to death.  Ugh.  It seems the problem with McCarthy’s movies might be that the filmmakers showed just too much fidelity to the work, that because of the fidelity the flaws of the book are the flaws of the movie, which might be why I preferred There Will Be Blood.

I also read the novel on which There Will Be Blood is based, Oil! By Upton Sinclair, and while it was a bit tedious, especially when it came to the sections about labor strife and politics, Paul Thomas Anderson was wise enough to discard the more melodramatic pieces of the novel – or pretty much anything after the first 100 – 150 pages, focusing instead on the triangle formed between the Plainview men and Eli Sunday.  Unlike the Coen’s, who showed complete fidelity to the novel, Anderson made it a jumping off point and while his film might be flawed – the ending isn’t quite as perfect as I would like – those flaws are at least his flaws, not merely some he carried over from the book and put in his work.  That he departed so completely from the book might be why There Will Be Blood soars right off the screen and remains a haunting film, while No Country For Old Men remains a little crime drama, diverting, but not ultimately captivating.

 Trivia:

Roger Deakins has been the Coen’s DP of choice ever since Barry Sonenfeld decided he wanted to be a director as well.  It’s been a fruitful pairing, yielding four Oscar noms – one more should be expected for True Grit.  In all he’s been nominated eight times.  Number of wins: O.

It’s ironic that No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood would end their journey’s on Oscar night, considering they’d literally been inextricably linked since the begining – both having filmed in and around Marfa, Texas at nearly the same moments in time.

For the other winners and films left to see in this little project, click here.

 

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