Retrospecticus: The perfection of No Country For Old Men

When I went to see No Country For Old Men, I all but dragged myself into the theater to do so. I wasn’t excited to see it. I wasn’t a massive Coen Brothers fan. I was only in the theater because it had such great reviews I knew I couldn’t participate in the conversation about film unless I did. So on a mild December evening, I forced myself into a theater after I was already in the town it was playing in for a comic show.

2.5 hours later I walked out utterly renewed. Maybe I hadn’t wanted to see the film but it blew my mind. Despite the bleak subject matter, I felt energized in the way great art electrifies you. It was an exciting, astonishing film to watch. It hit me so hard.

Now I find myself looking at it from 10 years distance and I’ve really struggled with trying to convey my feelings about this film. How do you dissect a film that isn’t broken? What do I say that isn’t redundant? The only thing I can do is express why the film affected me like it did.

I want to start by noting something about this film that gets often overlooked. This is an immensely entertaining film. The movie flows like a torrential river taking you along for the ride. It’s never slow though it is often still. I rarely feel this way but anybody who found it boring can be ignored on it in my eyes.

It’s of course a marvel of acting. Javier Bardem won the Oscar and there wasn’t even a hint anybody would challenge him for it. He’s a marvel in the film as an asexual, seemingly inhuman figure with subtle traces of the worst of us. Then there’s Josh Brolin, killing it in the midst of the greatest year of his career. Tommy Lee Jones gives his best turn post-Fugitive. Lastly Kelly MacDonald only gets one scene in which she has anything to do but she steals the film.

This movie looks great. While the film justly won the top oscars, the oscar for Cinematography went to Robert Elswit for his admittedly gorgeous work on There Will Be Blood. But if there was a moment Roger Deakins’ absurd career long shutout at the Oscars should’ve ended, it was here. This movie is a long series of unbeautiful landscapes that look stunning in this film. The Coens have created gorgeous films before, but this is their finest hour.

Then there’s the script. I haven’t read the novel by Cormac McCarthy but I don’t feel like I have to. I can tell the book was well adapted. This is a series of supremely well written scenes that play out so smoothly we can almost hear the screenwriters narrating in our ears. The dialogue is that beautiful speak one expects from prose, not drama. The Coens took their second screenwriting Oscar for this and they deserve more.

But what really stays with me about the film is its nihilism. I can’t express enough how much I hate nihilism in films. It’s usually facile and unbearable to watch, expressed by shallow children who think they’ve found something new. Yet here? It’s fully earned. This movie comes from adults who’ve taken a long look at the world and truly find something rotten in it. The film is without exception populated by adults, not 20 somethings acting cute. That gives it weight.

I could go into the film in greater depth. I’ve said virtually nothing about Chigurh, whose philosophy and supposed inhuman nature the film itself deconstructs. I could go into the coin tosses. I could go into the sound. But I’m going to stop at the same passing thoughts this movie left with that cold night. I thought this was a great film in 2007. It’s the best film of the decade from the viewpoint of 2017.

Next week: Beowulf.

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