Monday, 25 August 2008

No Country for Old Men

Yesterday I eventually caught up with the Coen Brothers' film No Country for Old Men. Nominated for seven Oscars, it won four including best film, best screenplay and best director. RottenTomatoes, a movie review site, gives it 94%, describing it as…

Another triumph for the Coen Brothers, 'No Country' has the perfect mixture of suspense, humor, and desperately compelling performances. The seemingly simple story hides a more complex narrative, and high tension is maintained throughout.

But I was warned by the cruiser who lent us the DVD that the film was exceedingly violent and lacked a satisfying ending, a verdict echoed by someone else who didn't like the film.

I must say I think it is one of the best films I have ever seen. But I can see why these guys found the film puzzling and lacking in closure... because it's a film about incomprehension. Throughout the film, the local sheriff Ed Tom Bell (played by Tommy Lee Jones) reflects on the senselessness of these changing times. The film starts with his voiceover reminiscing about the old days when some sheriffs never wore guns; it ends with him describing himself as "outmatched".

Art is deliberately opaque. We go back to Leonardo's Mona Lisa for the questions it raises not for the answers it supplies. Great art forces us to think.

One reviewer put it this way…

Every scene is riveting because you never know which way it's going to go. That includes the ending, which at first glance may feel disappointing. Something about it stuck in my craw -- yet I could tell that the problem was with me, not with McCarthy [the author] or the Coens. I was missing something. Seeing the film a second time, I caught subtleties I had missed at first, and everything fell into place. It's a mistake to take the film for a simple crime thriller. You look at it that way and you'll surely be let down by the conclusion. Look at it instead as a story about the capriciousness of fate, about how lives can be changed in the blink of an eye in ways that are unpredictable and unfair. One character even vocalizes the film's theme outright: "You can't stop what's comin'. It ain't all waitin' on you. That's vanity."

But, for me, No Country for Old Men is more than a film about thoughtlessness and futility. It's also a film about consequences (the violence that goes with lucrative illegal activity, obviously); about misplaced principles (the killer "keeps his promise" to kill the dead man's wife); and, about denial (asked if he's going to shoot a witness, "That depends. Have you seen me?" the murderer replies).

Excruciatingly violent, and not in the reassuringly jokey way of Kill Bill, no wonder some cruisers didn't like it. After all, it's set in Texas.

"He has seen the same things I have seen and it has certainly made an impression on me" observes the sheriff at one point.

Capriciousness, senselessness, consequences, misplaced principles, denial and above all incomprehension.

Could be talking about the Rio.

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