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An especially devious film
At first glance, No Country For Old Men is a simple cat-and-mouse story about a guy with a case full of money, running from a killer who wants the money. But it is somewhat more nuanced then that. Above all else, this film is a masterwork in undermining audience expectations.

NCFOM is bound to frustrate a lot of viewers. Its reticent characters and slow pace may come off as dull and its regular subversion of convention will leave others disappointed. But this troper finds such bucking of the trend to be refreshing. NCFOM is one of those movies that has the balls to end with no victory for the hero. It likes to trick the viewer into thinking they know something the onscreen character's don't, only to pull out an ace at the last second that the audience didn't see coming. The movie sets up for a big final showdown between the protagonist and antagonist, only to subvert it at the last possible second.

This film loves to screw around with the audience. Some will not like that at all, but I want to be taken for a ride. I'm tired of seeing the hero always win against insurmountable odds. If the hero is always going to ultimately win in these stories, where is the tension? Every once in a while, we need a film this nihilistic and uncompromising. Combine that with its haunting atmosphere and chilling locales, this film will be unlike anything you will have ever seen. If you want something that dares to be different, I recommend this film entirely.
This is a good review. I think I'll have to go back and watch NCFOM again to look for some of these themes. I appreciated it the first time, but only in that vague "well, that was an Oscar movie" way. Looking forward to seeing it again.
comment #8070 longstreth 12th Jun 11
Eh. I say there are enough Shoot The Shaggy Dog stories out there so that NCFOM isn't particularly "original" or special. I liked it a lot, mind you, but it wasn't anything I haven't seen before or won't see again. It's just a different forumla that could end up being, is on its way to being, or already is, another cliche.

What makes this movie good for me is the ride itself, just sitting back and letting the work do what it wants. I don't get heavily emotionally invested, I just watch. And NCFOM is a fine thing to watch.
comment #14483 Robotnik 28th May 12
I disagree. The Coen Brothers are known for anticlimax, so I saw the ending from a mile away. I honestly think people like Jean-Pierre Melville have handled the same subject in a better way.

Also, this movie was by no means slow paced. It was incredibly suspenseful... but being suspenseful doesn't stop a movie from failing if its message cannot hold up. The pervasive nihilism just ruined the movie for me. And this is coming from someone who *likes* depressing movies.
comment #14606 HandyHandel 5th Jun 12
"NCFOM is one of those movies that has the balls to end with no victory for the hero"

No, that's not it at all. What is it with people pretending Hollywood Endings consist of the hero winning? Heroes lose in popcorn movies all the time. What it is that defines hollywood endings, to my mind, is found in the phrase "wrapped up in a neat little bow." No Country For Old Men definitely subverts that. It is radically anti-climactic, and apparently intent in the end on deliberately making the audience lose track of what's going on, if not fall asleep. I know I was not alone when the credits rolled in saying, "That's it? What just happened?"

I wouldn't call any of that refreshing, since as the above poster points out the Coens have long been bunched with David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, and all the other serial expectation subverters. There is something special about the tone of a Coen movie, in that you can never tell whether it's serious or some sort of parody. Even so, I prefer for movies to have a climax and not make me lose my place and bump into the ending as if by accident.
comment #14610 tublecane 5th Jun 12
"Also, this movie was by no means slow paced. It was incredibly suspenseful"

You can be both.
comment #14611 tublecane 5th Jun 12
"If the hero is always going to ultimately win in these stories, where is the tension? Every once in a while, we need a film this nihilistic and uncompromising."

Sorry to go on on this point, but this mindset really bothers me. There's a difference between heroes winning and nihilism. And besides, No Country For Old Men is not nihilistic. Certainly it flirts with that, especially during the weird car crash near the end. But there isn't any doubt, is there, that the villain is evil and the other guy (won't call him the hero, exactly) is marginally better. Nor is there doubt that we're supposed to identify with and learn something from Tommy Lee Jones' ruminations, even if they are rueful and lonely and perhaps hopeless. Nor is there any that the wife's end is tragic, and in tragedy there is meaning.
comment #14612 tublecane 5th Jun 12
"There's a difference between heroes winning and nihilism."

What I mean is that even in the movies where the hero dies, there is usually some kind of inherent cosmic karma that ensures a moral victory. Through their actions, they'll prove the strength of good over evil, or some such. NCFOM doesn't have that, and it doesn't have evil conquering good either.

I wouldn't call the villain evil. He's the antagonist of course, but he come across as an amoral machine, or an inscrutable force of nature instead of a "bad guy". The movie invites us to try and figure out what is going on in his head; to try and spot a rhyme or reason to his actions. In the end though, neither the characters nor the audience can. Like the world he lives in, the villain doesn't really operate by any visible moral code or greater cause, and his actions are governed by chance (coin flipping, lucky escapes etc.)

We are shown a world where people live a precarious, clumsy life, only to die without fanfare or purpose. I think that is the general message of the movie: we, like Tommy Lee, are trying to find a morality in a world that has none.

comment #14643 maninahat 5th Jun 12
What is it with people pretending Hollywood Endings consist of the hero winning?

A Hollywood Ending is when the hero wins even when it seems rather unrealistic and or when they always do despite the odds. So in a way, on the broad side it is the hero winning.

But there isn't any doubt, is there, that the villain is evil and the other guy (won't call him the hero, exactly) is marginally better

That's a rather unfair comparison. You need to be pretty messed up to not look "marginally better" when compared to Anton, who was described in universe as a psychopathic killer.

apparently intent in the end on deliberately making the audience lose track of what's going on, if not fall asleep.

Are you going down that road again.
comment #14644 marcellX 5th Jun 12
"A Hollywood Ending is when the hero wins even when it seems rather unrealistic and or when they always do despite the odds. So in a way, on the broad side it is the hero winning."

I can see it as goodness winning, or at least there being hope of goodness' victory being imminent, whatever happens to the hero specifically. Barring that, even, at least the ending being positive despite the odds. I've always taken it to mean more than anything else an overly simplistic ending that's tied up in a nice little bow, whatever happens to the hero specifically.

Far too many heroes die or otherwise suffer in typically happy Hollywood pablum for it to necessarily mean the hero wins. Of course, a hero can die and still win. I wouldn't narrow the definition to exclude Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II because Harry dies before he comes back and wins the day thanks to convenient property laws. A classic example of what I'm talking about would be how Scarlett O'Hara cheers herself up by realizing she still owns land after being dumped and left utterly alone and childless with no prospects in Gone With the Wind. She loses and it is sad, but they pretend like it's happy because that's what hollywood does.

"You need to be pretty messed up to not look 'marginally better' when compared to Anton, who was described in universe as a psychopathic killer."

I could change it to mostly better, to be more accurate. I can't call him the out and out hero given how he condemns his wife, though the audience is motivated to accept that decision fateful though it is. I can't think of many viewers on a basic emotional level wanting him to give himself up for dead, even if intellectually they know it makes him complicit in future evil. They want him to fight back, even though the movie implies he's eventually going to lose.

Notice how you distinguish Anton as a psychopath. He is, others aren't, and I'm fairly certain it's a bad thing he is and a good thing others aren't. How would that be appropriate, were this movie nihilistic? The very fact that you choose a word like psychopathic to describe the guy filling what would be the traditional villain role makes my point for me.

"Are you going down that road again"

Yes. That was my personal experience. I nearly fell asleep, and I heard someone else in the theater ask verbatim "That's it?"
comment #14674 tublecane 6th Jun 12
"What I mean is that even in the movies where the hero dies, there is usually some kind of inherent cosmic karma that ensures a moral victory. Through their actions, they'll prove the strength of good over evil, or some such."

See my above description of Gone With the Wind. That's long been the archetypal hollywood ending in my head, given what a whiplash it is from misery to hope. Not that it's false, exactly, in that if anyone she is the sort who could convince herself she's gonna go forth and conquer the world. But the book's ending is far, far better and less hollywood.

Granted, Gone With the Wind is not a good vs. evil movie. Neither is No Country for Old Men, but it's not as nihilistic as some insist. I place it far to the cynicism side of the sliding scale of idealism and cynicism, but it's more Black and Gray than Black and Black Morality. You don't know whether it's supposed to be one big joke or a serious exploration of evil. There's a lot of staring into the abyss. The scene where the bad guy seems to get paid back by crashing his car, to me, is especially bleak. Considering how weird it is, and how easily he walks away considering, it's almost as if even if God exists He is not powerful enough to correctly punish Anton Chigurh.

Nevertheless, there is a protagonist and antagonist. The villain actually is a villain, and though not good the guy in place of the hero is sympathetic and understandable. Other characters, the cops, the wife, the gas station proprietor, even the annoying grandmother are apparently good people. If Tommy Lee Jones learns that unending and unstoppable horror is part of the human condition, and that cruelty and violence existed in the frontier days as much as the era of green haired punks not saying "Sir" and "Ma'am," this is identified as a bad thing.
comment #14675 tublecane 6th Jun 12
"I wouldn't call the villain evil. He's the antagonist of course, but he come across as an amoral machine, or an inscrutable force of nature instead of a 'bad guy'"

He is an agent of fate and a conduit for the, what shall I call it, capricious malice of the universe. Well, whatever, that merely moves the evil back one step to the inscrutable forces of nature rather than its embodiment in one particular man. To say that Chigurh is one link in a chain of cause and effect that started at the beginning of time and lead to this or that death is not to say that No Country For Old Men is nihilistic, nor that he is not a villain. Morality is not about what is, but about what ought to be.

Amoral machines, by the way, seem to me evil. Unless you want to write off his psychopathy as a disease and not his fault, though he seems aware of what he's doing to me. It is perfectly appropriate to view him as not merely a character but as a symbol for, as you say, the inscrutable forces of nature. This is not all he is, or the movie would be as deep as a medieval morality play. But nevermind, the point is villains that are not so much fully developed human beings as stand-ins for other things are still villains.

He, or what he symbolizes, is still evil. Or, rather, it leads to evil. At least we can agree you're not supposed to like what he/nature is doing. You are supposed to side with Tommy Lee Jones against the whole bloody mess, right?

comment #14676 tublecane 6th Jun 12
"Like the world he lives in, the villain doesn't really operate by any visible moral code"

I don't agree. Again, the Coens are fond of making you wonder whether it's serious or not. And in-universe certainly no moral code punishes evil and rewards good. But to say there's not moral code is off. We're supposed to think Bardem is bad. We're supposed to think it was wrong for Brolin to take the money and fight on instead of saving his wife. We may or may not agree with Woody Harrelson that Bardem is crazy, but we're definitely supposed to agree with the wife that it's Bardem that's doing it, not the coin.

He doesn't have to kill her and does, and it's a bad thing that he does. Tommy Lee Jones is he conscience all along, and especially when he counsels the wife to help him turn Brolin in and at the end. If these things are not so, then I don't know what I watched. If you want to say they were so, or that's how it played out, but ultimately you're supposed to side with the abyss, well...all I can say is that it's at best it's ambiguous.

If nihilism was the real message, then it was hidden under a cloud of morality. There's no way to watch without thinking most of what I laid out, or at least thinking the movie wants you to believe it as I laid out. Since there was no rug pull at the end, only a series of weird scenes hinting at an indifferent universe and the endless cruelty of nature amounting as I said to at best ambiguity, I have to go with that as the official version.

I'll go along with anyone who wants to call it devious, to say it played with morality and hinted at the meaninglessness of existence. But on top of those themes there was a fairly standard (before the climax) plot, with a fairly standard if Black and Gray morality. Nihilistic it was not. Hinting at nihilism amidst moralizing is not nihilism.
comment #14677 tublecane 6th Jun 12
Nihilism is amoral, and I'm sure plenty of people find it to be evil - but a meaningless, amoral world doesn't care what you, or Tommy Lee thinks of it. Likewise, you may regard Anton as evil, but as far as Anton is concerned, your opinion of morality is just an abstraction. He's as evil as the white whale - that is to say, our sense of humanity and morality is alien to him. It is pointless to see him in such terms as good or bad, but we can forgive Tommy Lee for trying. We side with Tommy Lee, because like him, we're trying to get a grip and make sense of it all.
comment #14678 maninahat 6th Jun 12
To clarify my argument, there is a trope called Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy. The reason you don't see many movies with a nihilistic message is not because most people ascribe to some kind of traditional or newfangled morality. Or it is, but not in the way you might think. It's because nihilism makes for poor storytelling. It's hard to even know what's going on let alone care about a story that lacks a moral context. We need to know some things are good and others bad for drama to have meaning.

If the message of No Country For Old Men was nihilistic, then it had to be so covertly. Otherwise, everyone would be disappointed, or more disappointed than they were. Assuming this was the Coen's intention, it would be necessary to bury it under a more traditional plot. That's where the sort of deviousness referred to in the review enters.

For what happens to make sense you have to have the audience think the anti-protagonist is foolhardy for grabbing the cash. You have to think the villain is a villain, and that he does evil things. You have to think the protagonist is ultimately wrong not to save his wife, though you understand why he fights on. You have to think Tommy Lee Jones is right to try to convince the wife to turn herself and the protagonist in. You have to think the wife is right that it's the villain doing it, not his coin, that he doesn't have to kill her, and that it's bad to kill her.

All along you can suggest the villain stands in for other, greater forces lurking behind him. All along you can hint that the universe is indifferent and life is meaningless. All along you can suggest suffering is perpetual and nature doesn't care. But you must suggest, not say. Otherwise, people will be apt to tune out. It was my experience that they did, eventually, during the weird car crash scene and definitely during Tommy Lee Jones' meandering to the end credits. But not until after the suspense built up to its greatest point in the non-confrontation between Jones and Bardem, and not until after the wife's argument with the villain.

Like I said, at best it is ambiguous. Whether the true secret message was nihilism, the movie relied on morality to tell the story. So saying it was nihilistic is hyperbole. Hints, suggestions, whiffs, etc. aren't the real thing.
comment #14679 tublecane 6th Jun 12
"Nihilism is amoral, and I'm sure plenty of people find it to be evil - but a meaningless, amoral world doesn't care what you, or Tommy Lee thinks of it"

Here's the question, though. Is the movie amoral in that way? No, not explicitly at least. I reserve the possibility that that is its secret message. But quite obviously the movie relies on morality to tell its story. It's not just me who thinks there's good and bad. The movie does, too, at least for most of its run.

"you may regard Anton as evil, but as far as Anton is concerned, your opinion of morality is just an abstraction"

Anton's opinion is not at issue. I wonder what he thinks, exactly; he seems to be a fatalist and mechanist, but that's a question for another day. Does the movie agree with Anton? No, I don't think so. That is, again, for most of its run. There are suggestions, but like I said at best its ambiguous.

"He's as evil as the white whale - that is to say, our sense of humanity and morality is alien to him"

It doesn't matter what is or isn't alien to him. Unless he's unfit for trial due to mental illness, but that's not what we're getting at. I wouldn't go so far as to call him a white whale. He only symbolizes such forces. His code, or something like it, has been adopted by others. And he's not an animal. He could be crazy, but he's a thinking, deliberative person. He's almost too rational, if anything.

Even if he were the white whale and beyond human understanding, he could still be evil, if evil is as evil does. Then he's on a different plane than whether or not he deserves the death penalty, but still within the realm of morality. There are some who think God evil, if there is a God, for causing earthquakes, letting children be molested, etc. As such can forces of nature be evil.

"It is pointless to see him in such terms as good or bad, but we can forgive Tommy Lee for trying. We side with Tommy Lee, because like him, we're trying to get a grip and make sense of it all."

Do you think the movie wants us to side with Tommy Lee, at least in the meantime before it can uppercut us with the hint of nihilism? I do, and that's the point. The movie relies on morality to tell the story.
comment #14680 tublecane 6th Jun 12
"Or it is, but not in the way you might think."

If this was unclear, it is because something in the nature of storytelling or deep within the human mind requires stories to possess a moral context. Which is not to say that people can't understand nihilism in any form. They can be persuaded, sometimes too easily, of it in an essay or philosophical treatise. Just not in a story.
comment #14681 tublecane 6th Jun 12
Nah, a Hollywood ending is not so specific. It's even more apparent in franchises, the heroes are on the smaller end of the probability chart yet they keep winning by the end of the story (a good example is the Bond movies); or when the heroes were close to losing (be it dying or whatever) several times in the film yet always survive, at worst with only one or two loses near the end for dramatic tension.

Also what I meant by going down that road again is your take that it could't be that you just didn't like it, or that it just came out bad, but that the Coen Brothers are Max Bialystock and Gene Wilder and must had "deliberately tried" to make it bad.
comment #14682 marcellX 6th Jun 12
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