No Country for Old Men – Joel and Ethan Coen USA 2007

No Country for Old Men – Joel and Ethan Coen USA 2007

Adrin Neatrour writes:Here comes the bogyman
No Country for Old Men – Joel and Ethan Coen   USA 2007   Tommy Lee Jones Javier Bardem  Woody Harrelson   Kelly Macdonald
Viewed at Tyneside Cinema 14 April 08  ticket £6-50

Here comes the bogyman

The opening shots of No Country for Old Men (NCOM): dawn over Southern Texas the harsh lands captured in the light of the spinning sun.  The sequence seems to augur a presence in the film of  primal cosmological and topographical forces that shape the men’s lives.  But this sequence is no more than a coat hanger, a series of pretty pictures, a frame on which to hang a concatenation of the mindless violent events that make up the scenario.

The Coen’s trademark is to depict down home good ol’ boys in situations of extremis. The message is that in the rural heartlands of the USA the twisted threads of violence that make up the warp and woof of the American cultural matrix are have taken endemic root.  Looking in from on the outside, the rural areas of the USA might appear to be an unchanging scape of clapboard houses and trailers governed by grizzled folksy can do and know how.  This is façade, and behind the façade of the shingle and the rockwall is a society in disintegration.  The moral to NCOM might be that mythically at least the hoodlum used to take on the Police Department and lose (even if it was at the cost to the Department of abrogating the moral code of society); today the hoodlum takes on the Police Department and wins. 

However on rereading the above I feel immediately as if I am reading into NCOM a meaning that is not justified by what I saw: though some of these elements are present in NCOM, their presence is cursory and gestural.  The sunrise, the folksy wise voice over delivered by ‘sheriff’ Tommy Lee Jones, the trailer parks and motels, the conversations about drugs and immigrants all function as plausible filler to NCOM ‘s variant on the formulaic chase/stalk movie, a genre that has become knotted into its own conventions from French Connection onwards.   

NCOM’s psychopathic stalker killer Anton is a mutant beast with ‘haircut’: a cross between one of the family members in the Texas Chain Saw or Evil Dead or the Terminator android, and Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry.  Anton is a machine:  programmed to kill, unstoppable, targeted like a homing missile, and with a Jackal like intelligence.  The only human feature possessed by the Anton machine is a morbid curiosity.  NCOM then is a simple exercise in unleashing the machine in pursuit of its quarry, and scripting in the usual sequences of violence, chase and collateral damage, covering the resultant potage with a garnish of folksy observations.

This is a mechanical movie that once the initial premise is established carries few surprises. The dynamic of the plot is a drugs deal gone badly wrong. Subsequently a small time shit kicker makes off with the loot and the machine is dispatched to retrieve the dosh.    The trouble with having a machine as the prime focus of a film is that everything else is reduced to mechanicality.  There is no intelligence, there are no ideas no thoughts just a mechanised reckoning bracketed by a few one line cracks.

The way the film is shot and edited reflects the simplicity and crudity of the scenario.  I don’t think there is an interesting shot in the film, either in camera or in the editing.  (There is one stupid cut to a group of Mexican street musicians when Woody Harrelson regains consciousness in Mexico)  In the main the Coens’ camera seems to have been placed to move from action to action, and the editing follows the shooting script with a series of action cuts.  Few scenes are allowed to develop in their own time – one exception is the garrotting at the front of the movie which is done in more or less one take – mostly time is violated by the editing and by the plot line itself in which it is not possible to make any sense of time other than by reference to the demands of the plot.   Mostly the film moves through camera and Avid/final cut pro ministration with an increasingly predictable rhythm, mechanical modular filming making that works against the tensions and oppositions that the Coen’s try to set in play.

A number of people have commented on the mumbly delivery of lines in NCOM.  After viewing the film I think this mode of delivery is a conceit, a desperate means to claim for the film a down real authenticity.  The fact NCOM needs to stake out such a claim places it in the same category those adverts that appropriate authentic looking signs, linguistic visual or audio, to try and sell their products.

 It was interesting to see two films in the same week that had at their core, concern with violence.  Whereas Funny Games (Michael Haneka)  is structured as a machine (like the apparatus in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony) and uses cinematic frame and time based theatrical devices to explore and make manifest the presence of violence in American society; the Coen’s are unable to do little more than make yet another film that exploits violence and substitutes a psychotic robot for a machine to carry the plot line to its conclusion.

The Coen’s may suggest that NCOM is a parody, an inverted filmic comment on films like the Dirty Harry series. My response is that these films with their big pricks with big guns, with their mordant one liners “Make my Day”, their action ethos in camera and editing, already occupy that space which we call parody.
You cannot parody that which is already a parody, for at that point the candle gives no light.   
adrin neatrour
adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

Author: Adrin Neatrour

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