New Internationalist

No Country for Old Men

January 2008

Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

Heartless box-ticking from the Coen Brothers.

For entertainment value, this scores pretty high. Yet there’s something seriously lacking.

From the first intercutting scenes, it’s gripping. A blue-collar Texan, out hunting in the desert, is following the trail of blood of a deer he’s shot, but only wounded. Somewhere nearby, a prisoner uses his handcuffs to throttle his off-guard police escort. When he’s dead, the camera focuses on the scuff marks his boots leave on the floor. It’s a bravura opening, whose motifs – violence, blood, tracks and traces – tie together the two figures and set up the bloody pursuit of one by the other.

It ticks lots of boxes. We’re rooting for the decent blue-collar guy, Llewellyn, who, as it happens, doesn’t find the deer, but dead people and dogs, and a huge stash of notes, left in a shoot-out between drug runners. He’s desperate to hang on to the money, but this ain’t no ornery movie – this is by the Coen Brothers. Llewellyn’s pursuer, brilliantly played by Javier Bardem, is clever, logical, mordantly witty, and a relentless, psychotic killer. He has charisma, and the down-home Texan folk he comes across have no chance. Well, one or two white folk do – it’s down to the flip of a coin. Mexicans, though, they’re instantly disposable and only one gets to say a few words.

Cormac McCarthy, whose novel the Coens have filleted, is a deeply serious writer. The direction and cinematography are masterly – No Country is thrilling, often eye-popping and very amusing. But it’s cartoon stuff, focused on the mechanics of the story (who will kill whom?), on spectacle, and mystique. And it’s heartless. A game. Its lack of engagement is a kind of porn.

Malcolm Lewis

This column was published in the January 2008 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 408

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