No Country for Old Men

August 6th, 2008

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.

Posted in film and tv by Joe Abercrombie on August 6th, 2008. Tags:

14 comments so far

  • Clambeard says:


    The ending of your trilogy was one of my favorite parts. The sense that little was resolved, that the whole thing was just one more round between superpowers, that the success and failures of the individual meant little to nothing in the big picture, all of that was a departure from typical fantasy, where evil comes to evildoers and a sense of rightness is restored in the land.

    No such nonsense for you, and I commend you for it!

  • Elena says:

    a “grim and brilliant” 9? not a BLOODY nine? Can’t believe you missed that opportunity!


  • David says:

    I had not realised it until reading this post, but both the movie, No Country for Old Men and Last Argument of Kings did leave me feeling some what the same, a little dissappointed. Though the reason being my own anticipation of the endings in both cases.

    After reading Before they are Hanged, I was so excited about the possible endings of the Final Book, and even though the end was satisfying, the events did not live up to my preconceived emotional excitment/anticipation. Which was also the case with the movie No Country for Old Men, The emotional anticipation of what was to come was built up through the first part of the movie, especially when the “hero” threw down the gauntlet.

    When events do not proceed as you have eagerly anticipated, then the emotional let down does tend to feel a little dissappointing, even if the endings are excellent. 🙂

  • Bob Lock says:

    But isn’t life just like that? Very rarely turning out the way you planned or hoped for? And sometimes even when things do come together and the outcome is what you predicted it seems hollow, mundane and not as spectacular as you imagined?

    Or is that just my life?
    someone hug me, quick…


  • Anonymous says:

    I thought No Country… was enormously impressive. I admire films that are prepared to take risks and upset narrative expectations , and also require the viewer to look closely to extract the meaning or truth of events. I also admire books that do the same. A 10 for me for both film and the First Law.


  • Susanne says:

    The drawn-out, quiet ending almost ruined the film for me. It took away all of the momentum the film had so quietly built, all of the wonder at that marvelously detached killer, and the story, and visuals… and it kinda left me feeling that I’d seen an “okay” film. Which is stupid, of course, because it’s an AWESOME film – but for me it stopped being one right after he walked away from that accident.

    Still, I agree with your 9, and with elena’s “bloody”, of course. 🙂

  • Bryan Russell says:

    It’s interesting to see the reactions to the film. When I first heard that the movie was going to be made, I was worried because I thought the film might try and change too much of the book (which was obviously very filmic) and make it more happily a hollywood story. Luckily, it was the Coen brothers, and so my fears were allayed. They did a wonderful job, really, holding to the course the book set, which I think was important, because that ending, and how the story is twisted, is basically the point of doing it, I think, for McCarthy. He kind of teases you with the idea that the story is a thriller… but it’s not. McCarthy basically writes what are apocalyptic stories (the exception being The Road, which of course is post-apocalyptic – anyone else here looking forward to the upcoming film?), where things sort of warp and fall apart.

    I don’t think McCarthy is really interested in satisfying the reader in the traditional way, with the bad guy getting his comeuppance. Sometimes the bad guy walks away and the good guy is left lying dead in the door of a cheap motel room (sidenote: I’m trying to remember the film, but I’m pretty sure in the book it’s Chigurh who kills him, and not the mostly unimportant side charcters. I think it’s implied that it’s a three way shootout that only Chigurh walks away from – though in both it’s “offstage” and so not entirely clear – only to return later and search the motel).

    I think it comes down to two things: the expectations readers/viewers have based on their experience with previous stories, and the expectations set up by the story itself. That is, does the story answer the questions it asks? It’s funny, because just a couple days ago I critiqued a novel for someone (it was quite good), and I used No Country for Old Men as an example just for this reason. I think it answers its own questions, and I think the twisting of the story serves a serious purpose. McCarthy sets up the showdown, perhaps… but there’s a lot of elements to suggest this ain’t gonna work out so nicely (much of it played out through the Sherriff – he tells us, warning us all along, what’s going to happen… it’s just a matter of whether you’re going to listen to him or to the voices of all those other stories you’ve seen/heard that are leading you down a different path). Where my friend’s novel went slightly astray was that there was a switch, but one without a thematic point. The story asked certain questions, and then answered different (though interesting) ones. Nothing a little revision won’t fix.

    I think stories need their own internal symmetry, whether working with or against the common types of the form. They have to function properly within themselves: they have to follow the rules that they set out. I think No Country for Old Men does this quite brilliantly… though that doesn’t mean everyone will like it. Lots of people, I’m guessing, will want that common type, will want that familiar feeling of satisfactory conclusion. They want to walk out saying “That was great!” rather than “what the hell?”. But I’m guessing that a lot of the “what the hell?” endings are the ones that stick with you, the ones that make you think, that make you adjust and adapt to something new.

    To bring it back to fantasy, I’d say look at the double ending of The Lord of the Rings. And that double ending is something the films miss out on, at least partially. The first ending in the novel is in Mordor: the ring is destroyed, Sauron defeated, all the bad guys are zapped or run away, and the good guys win… Yay! The classic good vs. evil climax and denouement. We fight, we win, we reap the rewards (a crown and a girl for Aragorn, a nice bit of property and a girl for Faramir, etc.). This is the sort of end we see endlessly reused, both in fantasy and elsewhere.

    But Tolkien does something both interesting and, I think, resonant. The Hobbits go back to the Shire, and all is not well… a second ending comes. Coming after the first, though, it’s quite interesting. The

  • clambeard,
    Why thankyou, I accept your commendation.

    my lawyers will be in touch over your use of the phrase “bloody nine”.

    I quite understand.

    Absolutely life is like that. And like I say, I had huge admiration for what they did with No Country for Old Men and it’s unflinching realism. I guess sometimes what people expect from reality and what they expect from stories can differ, though.

    Why thankyou. I totally agree with you (obviously, in the light of my own endings, I guess), it just interested me, therefore, that I did feel some sense of anticlimax when they took the approach to its logical conclusion with no country for old men…

    It also demonstrates the enormous importance of an ending, in that you can love a book or film but a last five or ten minutes/pages that somehow miss the spot for you can sour the whole experience. As you say, regardless of issues I might have had with the structure, it is a brilliant film.

    Very well thought out points, thanks. Sorry no one’s brought the book in, I guess no one can bear to be parted from it…

    I agree with everything you’re saying about admiring the guts of the film makers (not to mention their craft), and I love it when a film surprises me (look back at my review of I am Legend for my disgust at the obvious, cowardly ending). I agree with you that the twisting of the story serves a purpose, but I’m not totally convinced that No Country was entirely successful in that purpose. There was an undoubted collapse of tension after the off-screen death of the central character, and to some extent the film left me scratching my head rather than deeply considering the implications. And the fact that the key death was off-screen seemed almost to be willfully cheating the viewer, in a way. We’d been following him in minute detail up to that point, hadn’t we? Why rob us of that key moment? It doesn’t have to turn out any different. Sure, there were reasons, but were those reasons good enough to counteract the feeling of disappointment? sometimes you need to balance the unexpected with the expected. Maybe…?

  • Bryan Russell says:

    Hey Joe,

    I agree that showing his death off scene would be the area to target if there was one. It was a slap in the face, a bit (even in the book). I do think structurally that it most definitely highlights the point he’s making, that this isn’t about what we thought it was about. I suppose it’s a way to sort of embody some of theme in a technical choice… thought not without a large risk, obviously. I’m guessing a lot of people were probably like wtf? I was willing to go with it, considering the brilliance of how everything was handled. And maybe that’s because I didn’t find the tension drop off to be that bad, as we still had the Sheriff… and then Chigurh’s unfulfilled promise to the wife, which I thought was truly chilling. But I’d read the book first, and that might have influenced me… knowing that was yet to come, perhaps the offstage death was less drama deflating? I’m not sure.

    As for I Am Legend, I read your review when it came out, and agreed about the ending. I enjoyed the movie, overall, but was disappointed by that climax… but having not read the Matheson story I wasn’t sure if that was just a naturally poor ending or if that was more of a Hollywood manipulation.

    Still waiting for your book. Someone’ll bring it in. Unless you want to send on a complimentary copy… cough cough.

    Yeah, I’ll keep waiting.

    My best,

  • Anonymous says:

    Aw shucks, Joe. You shouldn’ta.


  • Hey, it’s about time! Baron Destructo weighed in on the movie way back in February. He too had problems with the movie’s third act:

    “No Country for Old Men is a brilliant three-quarters of a movie. Beautifully shot and wonderfully acted, it had me and the rest of the League of Aliens and Mutants for Evil on the edge of our Corinthian leather recliners. Javier Bardem’s portrayal of the dispassionately ruthless killer Anton Chigurh is chilling and more than a little reminiscent of a young Count Sinister. Yet, for some reason, the film ultimately eschews its taut, suspenseful narrative to – a) kill off the protagonist off-screen, and b) continue along matter-of-factly some twenty minutes past it’s dramatically satisfying conclusion. The Baron would argue that there is a good reason the three-act structure has become so entrenched as a way of telling a story on the big screen. BECAUSE IT WORKS!’

    To read the rest of the review (as well as Cookie Monster’s review of Snakes on a Plane which I assume is next on your viewing list)…

  • garret,
    how could I not? Keep up the good work, and cheers for stopping by.

    Joe M,
    Good to see you round these parts my friend! Rarely do I disagree with Baron Destructo, either about films or on the essential disposability of mankind, and I find myself in agreement with him once again. Bucking the accepted narrative structures is like the Baron’s moon-based world-destroying death ray.

    Best used sparingly.

  • T.D. Newton says:

    I agree, feeling that the ending to No Country was kind of a “so what?” type of resolution, but the rest of the film was fantastic. I particularly loved the scene where the “hero” first comes home to his trailer and the interaction between him and his woman (wife?). Brilliant acting, dialog, brutally honest and felt completely real.

    My library is unbearably slow so I haven’t picked up Last Argument yet so I tried to avoid the spoilers. Thanks for the warning.

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