No Country for Old Men: Bleak is the new black

Nihilism is apparently way hipper than I gave it credit for. Scores of filmgoers have vaulted the new Coen brothers film to the place of a 5 star classic without being able to justify why beyond a kind of bulwark like: “if you don’t get it, then you just don’t get it.” Certainly there’s room for non-traditional storytelling in Hollywood, but the shell game of faux-meaning this film plays is not simply post-modern, it’s sub-post-modern. I haven’t had the pleasure of making my way through Cormac McCarthy’s novel, which apparently exudes a similar bleak and sparse story landscape, but for the film (which needs to stand on its own anyway) the execution just doesn’t play. No Country For Old Men (at least in this reviewer’s estimation) is not the ark to save the cinema that many want us to place our faith, hope and love in. Actually, it’s more like an over-burdened paper boat, all but barely sinking.

Simply eschewing an accessible three act structure or leaving out major dramatic beats does not a masterpiece make. Even baiting and switching expectations could be a worthwhile technique if we receive something thoughtful in return, but the Coens are intent to give us a large spoonful of destruction and then turn out the lights. Were it not for the themes bumping around in this mess of dark humanity, or the deftness and strength of the acting, the whole thing would fall apart as a collection of ideas, with some exciting action sequences thrown in. True, the filmmakers plunge deep into the violent American psychosis which spills into every sub-culture it touches, but in their effort to shatter cliche they merely avoid giving the audience something to identify with. They’ve instead made a paean to modern alienation: “don’t identify, just celebrate the despair.”

On the positive side, the film is at points wholly chilling and nerve-wracking. Javier Bardem plays about as creepy and villainous a character ever to grace the silver screen. He stalks every scene with a Terminator-like terror that gives the film its true fuel. In fact, I think much of the misplaced worship of this film will come from the sheer mastery of Bardem’s performance.

And the Coens should also be given credit for a shocking assessment that the evil men do is ever present, ever real and ever-progressing to its own imminent demise, likely to take all of us with it. Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff may not serve the film’s dramatic action much (in fact, his presence is somewhat of a red herring), but his cool observations and luckless clue prowling work as a kind of dark Greek-chorus. He stands atop everything, noting with weary measurement just how unholy and bankrupt the whole show is. It’s a bold film that can come away with such a strong hand, shoving away politics and popular psychologies to simply suggest Man, as a creature of this world, will always tend to go bad, and worse.

But the film never rises to its own occasion and ultimately becomes too smart for its own good. It wants to borrow the yellow-brick road of action-movies to usher us into the story, but then it can’t sustain any promise once there. Instead of either rewarding our subconscious pleas for justice, or hooking us on a spike of our own blood-lust, the film delights in confusing us and ripping away any sense of satisfaction, even an ironic one. The characters simply choose to stop being relevant to us or themselves; the directors simply choose to stop thinking about the story. It’s a cheat, but a faux-brainy one, trumpeted by smug reviewers who think veering the film in this direction says more than it actually does. You can almost picture the raging coffee house debates taking place over the utter brilliance of the film to remain uninvolved in its own point.

But ultimately there is no hope, no dread, no unclouded reflection of our dire state, just a cynical wham-bang arthouse smack to the face. I liken it to a film that knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Coming from a cynic like me, that’s saying a lot.

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