Hugely behind the times, of course, but I undertook to say something about this when I saw it, and it really is a very interesting film. I usually try to avoid spoilers, but in this case discussion of the unusual narrative structure will make that impossible. The film, as well as making me think on a more general level, also brought up some thoughts about the narrative structure and ending of my own series, and the risks you take when you set out to try and twist or defy conventions.
So, if you haven’t seen No Country for Old Men AND read The First Law, my advice is to buy them both now, read/watch them, and return, but to read no further until you have…
It’s a beautifully made film, for sure. Very lean, naturalistic, unembroidered, with little or no music, no big camera moves or self-conscious editing, nothing flashy to distract from the feeling of brutal realism. It actually seemed to me a very good filmic representation of Cormac McCarthy’s stripped-back writing style, from what I’ve read of his (it’s adapted from one of his novels). Dialogue is spare – people tend to spend more time doing than talking about it – but characters are still sketched with a deft hand, even incidental ones. Acting is equally understated and effective across the board, particularly oscar-winning Javier Bardem, who produces one of the all time great screen psycopaths, exuding relaxed menace as he calmly slaughters his way across Texas under some of the most terrifying hair ever captured on film. I should also mention, since I think it unlikely that Tommy Lee Jones will read this, a great performance from Garret Dillahunt as Deputy Wendell.
It’s amazing how much tension is built up so quickly just by concentrating on the small things, the everyday, the routines. It reminded me at times of that prolonged final sequence in the Sopranos – everything observed with such drawn-out, close-up care that the most irrelevant details become imbued with a sense of menace. Indeed the sense of menace built up so high at times that I could hardly look. Rarely has a film been so unromanticised, so ruthlessly realistic. Violence was frequent, savage, sudden, sometimes random, often unpredictable, always extremely painful.
And the sense of realism went beyond the treatment of events and right to the narrative structure, which was every bit as ragged, strange, and unpredictable as real life. The (to that point) central character, the closest thing to a hero, who’s been engaged in a bloody cat-and-mouse with the villain, ends up getting killed, off-screen, by some largely unimportant extras. There is no showdown, no denouement. I must confess it left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand I greatly admired the realism, the way in which they chose to strip the subject matter of any trace of glamour. On the other I couldn’t avoid a nagging disappointment, and a loss of interest after that point. A perhaps unreasonable feeling that the film could have been so much more satisfying with a more traditional build-up, climax, and resolution.
Stripped of what had been the central spur of the film, it seemed to lose its way slightly. Tommy Lee Jones’ sherrif was suddenly pushed to centre stage, having been more of a supporting player to that point. There were a couple of rather protracted scenes in which he searched for meaning in the meaningless events, perhaps mirroring the viewer’s own rather desperate search in the same direction. But there were no answers, in the end. There was no resolution. Throughout, the killer acted with complete impunity, the police always three steps behind. The only thing that came close to stopping him a random car accident. I ended up intellectually impressed, impressed with the boldness of the filmmakers, certainly, but emotionally unsatisfied, maybe.
It’s interesting, because this is exactly the sort of response I’ve seen some people have to the ending of Last Argument of Kings, although obviously I went nowhere near as far in terms of defying the expected narrative structure and would certainly lay no claims to doing it half as well as No Country for Old Men. But when people don’t like the series it doesn’t tend to be the bleakness they dislike, it’s the raggedness, the lack of resolution, the sense that the characters haven’t necessarily achieved anything. The sense of life meandering on. They feel a bargain’s been struck that hasn’t been honoured, maybe. I guess when you choose to defy conventions – even if you do it as well as No Country for Old Men – there will always be some readers, or viewers, who are disappointed not to have got what they were expecting…
Still, a grim and brilliant 9.