Joel and Ethan Coen’s new film, No Country For Old Men, is not an easy film to watch. It is desperately nihilistic and almost apocalyptic, in the way that Cormac McCarthy is so apt at capturing. It’s an anachronistic Texas western in look and mood—with great action scenes, shootouts, and dead desert imagery. But it is a world-weary, existential western as well: somewhere between Unforgiven and 3:10 to Yuma.
However you might classify this film, one thing is certain: it is a great, great movie. Certainly one of the best of the year, and an Oscar nominee for sure.
What I appreciate most about this film is the way that it gradually moves from being a conventional (and conventionally graphic) thriller to a deeply ambivalent, almost lethargic elegy in the course of its two-hour running time. Don’t get me wrong—the film is incredibly engaging and well-paced throughout. But the visceral power of the violence in its first half is matched by the strikingly obvious avoidance of blood in its second half.
This is not to say that there is no violence in the film’s second half—just that it is rarely seen. What starts with clever camera evasions of illustrating violence soon becomes avoidance of entire scenes (important scenes) altogether. In most movies the violence escalates and climaxes in a bang-up conclusion. In No Country‘s final 45 minutes, we mostly see the effects of violent acts: the police tape, the scars, the funerals, the spiritual emptiness and desolate landscapes. By hiding from us what we know is there, the film’s thematic resolve becomes crystallized. This is not so much a film about violence (the culture of it, its cyclical nature, etc) as it is about our psychological responses to it: specifically, how we as pulp-consumers become desensitized to it and disengaged from the moral inexactitudes beneath it.
The reverse-momentum style of this film (which unemotionally kills off major characters with little more than a passing comment) reminded me of Paul Schrader’s discussion of abundant-to-sparse stylistic trajectories in his concept of transcendental cinema.
Schrader writes about “abundant” and “sparse” methods of filmmaking, with abundant referring to the idea that film as a medium can easily fulfill the dreams and desires of the audience, giving them abundant images of what they want or expect to see (and with the technology available today, the limits of what can be shown are almost nill). Sparse means, on the other hand, work against the abundant means, using purposeful restraint to keep the objects of desire hidden, “gradually robbing the abundant means of their potential.” In the case of this film, we desire or expect a one on one showdown between protagonist (Josh Brolin) and villain (Javier Bardem)—or at least some justice (any justice) to be served in the end. But the film denies us all of that, leaving us instead with a haunting, rambling soliloquy by a dazed Tommy Lee Jones. And it works.
Schrader believes that transcendental style “must use the given abundant means to sustain audience interest, and it must simultaneously reject the empathetic rationale for that interest in order to set up a new priority.” Stasis (when the image simply stops) is the embodiment of the spare: when abundant means are shown to have little purpose and the sparse means, now dominant, give way to the end of the film.
This is essentially the structure of No Country For Old Men. It lures us in with a classic noir-western plot and cat-and-mouse setup (hapless cowboy stumbles upon drug money, takes it, and must continually evade the pursuant villains) but then gradually re-orients the film away from this “plot” and more toward the point of view of a seemingly peripheral character (Jones). By the end we come to realize that the heart-pounding chase that makes up most of this film is just a part of the larger, ongoing chase in all of our lives: between past, present, and a future that invites mortality and assumes an inevitable reckoning.