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No Country for Old Men (2007)

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McCarthy has always struck me as a master of tone. The old testament feeling of No Country is inescapable. All the characters choose their path and it has to play out according to the codes that they have subscribed to.

When Llewellyn discovers the initial scene of the crime. He has choices. He makes his choice, then returns to the scene and is discovered. All the events result from his actions. Chigurh has a job. He may find a sinister pleasure in it but it is his job and he is trying to fulfill his obligation.

"Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. I had no belief in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A person's path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning."

It is a world without mercy or forgiveness; for me, this is the most difficult thing about No Country.

Edited by mumbleypeg

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There is an interesting tension in this film between absurdism and fatalism. Fatalism tells us our lives are meaningless because nothing can change what's going to happen to us, including the fact that we will die. Absurdism tells us our lives are meaningless because the things that happen to us are random and unpredictable, and ultimately there is no one who can take the raw data of our lives and hold it together in a narrative that will make any meaningful sense. So the film tells us that our lives are meaningless, and it mourns this fact. But the WAYS in which it tells us that our lives are meaningless pull in opposite directions -- which might mean that they are working together to make a doubly-effective point about the meaninglessness of our lives, or it might mean that they are working against each other, each theme diluting the other's full impact. I haven't quite decided yet.

At any rate, no scene sums this tension up better than the bit near the end, where

Javier drives a car and approaches an intersection

; you just KNOW that

another car is going to ignore the light and run right into the intersection and hit Javier's car

, that

Javier, who has seemed so "in control" all this time, is suddenly going to lose control

in the most unexpected of ways. But the very fact that you just KNOW it means that, within the dramatic structure of the film, it ISN'T all that unexpected. The CHARACTERS might experience this moment as absurdity, but the film is so masterfully made -- so ably told as a narrative that makes a meaningful point -- that WE experience this moment as fatalism, instead.

Side note: I wonder about the decision to keep the deaths of some of the most sympathetic characters (major or minor) offscreen. If the point of the film is the great gaping void that awaits us all -- the tragic meaninglessness of a world in which God either doesn't exist or doesn't care, and everything we ever were or knew simply ceases to be -- then the loss of any person's life is indeed an enormous loss, and I find myself thinking back to David Cronenberg's remark that the blood and gore in Eastern Promises are put there precisely because he is an atheist and he believes there is no afterlife awaiting these people and he wants to drive home how bad, how evil, how wrong it is to end a life. The Coens, OTOH, keep the deaths of some of the most innocent characters completely offscreen, and I can't decide whether this choice represents a reluctance to underscore their theme as strongly as they could have, or whether it itself makes a nihilistic point, by not even waiting for these characters to die before it drops them from the story. (Reluctance, or haste, for lack of a better word?) So that's another thing I haven't quite decided yet.

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

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I wonder about the decision to keep the deaths of some of the most sympathetic characters (major or minor) offscreen.

Well, they're "offscreen" in the novel as well. And the most important one does come as quite a baffling surprise in the book, just as it does in the movie.

I like your speculation, Peter. I wish I'd had time to go into this in my review (which I already turned in). But I also think that the choice to keep them offscreen is a way of letting us know that the movie is not, as we might first suspect, ABOUT those characters. The focus of the story is something else.

I'm also still arguing with myself about whether or not I think the film is completely fatalistic. Bell's words about God suggest that the doom of the world is being brought on my humankind in a hurry, and that nobody is willing to make the gestures of grace that might suggest the world is worth redeeming. But God *is* part of the picture, or at least some characters seem to think so. My sense, from McCarthy, is that the world is destroying itself and not even bothering to look heavenward, while God wait and watches and does nothing either because he's indifferent or because he's never invited to do so.

Edited by Jeffrey Overstreet

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Jeffrey Overstreet wrote:

: I'm also still arguing with myself about whether or not I think the film is completely fatalistic. Bell's words about God suggest that the doom of the world is being brought on my humankind in a hurry, and that nobody is willing to make the gestures of grace that might suggest the world is worth redeeming. But God *is* part of the picture, or at least some characters seem to think so. My sense, from McCarthy, is that the world is destroying itself and not even bothering to look heavenward, while God wait and watches and does nothing either because he's indifferent or because he's never invited to do so.

FWIW, I think the very final scene -- the very last bit of dialogue, and the final cut to black -- argue against that interpretation. It casts Bell's earlier words in a somewhat different light, does it not?

I now find myself thinking back to Unforgiven, which was also pretty nihilistic (though a lot of Christian commentators miss that point) and which also dragged out the deaths of some characters (not as much as Cronenberg, but still) to ram home the finality and awfulness of death.

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Question for those who have seen the film: Who's Ellis?

In the novel, I believe Ellis is Bell's uncle, but in the movie, although Ellis comments about Bell's father (or is it Bell's grandfather?), I don't know if the relationship is ever stated. The screenplay says only that Ellis is "an old man in a wheelchair, with a clouded eye."

I'm trying to figure out how to refer to this character.

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I was frustrated by the same thing, Christian. Ellis's scene may be the most important scene in the film as far as framing the themes and giving us some theological context. The book clearly identifies him as the uncle. The movie never identifies him at all, except for the sense that he and Bell have known each other a long time, and that they both know a lot about war and lawmen.

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Yeah, I called him a "friend" in my review, but I found at least one online reviewer who refers to Ellis as the uncle. I suspect the reviewer based that on the book. I don't think it's clear in the film.

I'd think that might be a deficiency in the screen adaptation, given how pivotal the scene is between Bell and Ellis, but maybe the obvious point is there in the title. All we need to know is that these are two "old men," one of whom is more resigned to the state of things than is the other.

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It's one thing not to like the ending -- I keep hearing that -- but another to think that it's completely beside the point, as Dana Stevens apparently believes. She doesn't offer a spoiler warning, and I don't think one is necessary, but I'm going to err on the side of caution:

The last scene of No Country for Old Men, in which Bell recounts his dreams to his wife Loretta (Tess Harper) is a tacked-on chunk of Meaning that seems to bear no relation to the tragically futile bloodbath we've just witnessed.

Edited by Christian

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My review.

UPDATE: The review link is currently leading to a blank page. I hope they get that fixed soon.

Edited by Jeffrey Overstreet

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When the truck headlights come over the ridge, roaring toward Josh Brolin

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The link is working now, and I see that you singled out Beth Grant, who didn't make any impression on me. I'm struggling to remember that character at all.

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Seems to be working now. But that's SOGGY Bottom Boys to you, mister.

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It's ON.

Jim Emerson tackles Jonathan Rosenbaum's review, and Rosenbaum responds in the comments. Emerson replies back, and then ...

That's as far as it's gone at this point.

Edited by Christian

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Yes, I've been buried in messages pointing out my foolish mis-naming of the band. I'm waiting now for somebody at CT who can fix it to do so.

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Yes, I've been buried in messages pointing out my foolish mis-naming of the band. I'm waiting now for somebody at CT who can fix it to do so.

When you have a toddler in diapers, the phrase "Soggy Bottom Boys" is never far from your mind.

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God bless Matt Zoller Seitz. This is a great piece of writing about No Country for Old Men and the Coens' whole catalog.

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Saw it. Interesting comments everyone. One structural element that stood out, off the top of my head: the film opens with 30 minutes of wide-open Texas landscapes, and then completely ditches that geographic tone for basically generic sets that fit the narrative of the rest of the story. On purpose? Why? Does that fit with the tone and feel of the book (I've not read it)?

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I found this to be a very fine literary film with a pitch-perfect sense of tone and place. Javier Bardem makes one of the most chilling villians I have seen on screen in a long time. But there was a coldness to the film that kept me at a distance, from truly embracing it. However, even though I've never read Cormac McCarthy, I really could hear his voice throughout the film, which is rare for a film adaptation of a literary work. Especially since Hollywood botches many of those. I will give the Coens credit for their skill, even if I wouldn't rank this film quite as highly as films like Fargo or Miller's Crossing.

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We've always suspected it, but now Overstreet confirms it. Oprah's imprimatur is more important than the Pulitzer Prize.

Jeffrey refers to "the recent Oprah-selection The Road", but nary a mention of the Pullet Surprise for the same book.

Oprah for President.

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Jeffrey, I love the last paragraph of your review. Have you received much feedback on it?

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Jeffrey, I love the last paragraph of your review. Have you received much feedback on it?

I agree broadly with the sentiment of the last paragraph, but wonder how/why it justifies anything more than a mediocre critical assessment of the film. We appeal to this theme so often to justify any number of violences in a given film or text that takes place in America, I am at a loss to determine the point at which such a paragraph becomes anything other than generic? It just seems that a film better be formally brilliant if this is the only point it seems to make, and No Country doesn't quite meet this standard.

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I hadn't read Jeff's review until now, but that last paragraph leaves me wondering something. What does the guy mean by "It ain't all waitin' on you. That's vanity"? Jeff, you follow this by asking the question, "Who is the world waiting on? If God exists, why doesn't he intervene to prevent such apocalyptic violence?" But I wonder if, in context, what the guy was trying to say was that the very EXPECTATION of an intervention was, itself, a form of vanity. (I need to see this film again.)

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SPOILERS

Saw the film and really liked it.

A unsatisfying ending, of course, but one that was deliberate.

First off, the dialogue is golden. Every word of it lands with a dry delight for language. That gas station scene is brilliant, mesmorizing.

Secondly, I have a different view of the film's take on fatalism/meaning/etc: To me it seems clear that the Coen Brothers are interested in toppling any master narrative: Justice, Law, Religion, Fate. They portray a universe that's unraveling metaphysically and even their own narrative form is a failed narrative. The "accident" teases us into believing that some higher force is going to exert justice, that the bad guy will get caught. But... nope, he makes it out okay.

I'll have to spend some time reading the article Jeff linked to that makes n argument for the Coen brothers as anything other than Nihilistic. Every film I see of theirs seems to confirm that idea.

-D

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