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A Film Snob's Dream

"No Country for Old Men" comes to DVD.

12:00 AM, Mar 14, 2008 • By SONNY BUNCH
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No Country for Old Men is a film that lends itself to over-analysis and pretentious film snobbery. This is not necessarily a bad thing--it's simply a fact. Consider, for example, Jim Emerson's (excellent) take on the movie's opening scene, which begins thusly: "The land is black, swallowed in the shadows. The sky is beginning to glow orange and blue. This is Genesis, the primordial landscape of 'No Country for Old Men.'" Film students will be writing similar sentences about the Coen brothers' second Best Picture winner for decades to come.

Scene after scene jump out at the audience, begging to be interpreted, twisted, manipulated, made sense of. There's the opening act, of course, which sets the film's physical stage (through landscape shots) and moral stage (through Tommy Lee Jones's voiceover narration), climaxing with our introduction to the greatest villain on screen since Hannibal Lecter.

Then there's Anton Chigurh's (Javier Bardem) philosophical showdown with an in-over-his-head gas station attendant. The scene is a screenwriting tour de force, and its tension is subtly heightened with music. In this case, the Coens are using a common convention--hinting at a coming conflict through a change in the film's score--against the audience. We have just seen Chigurh kill a police officer with his own handcuffs, so the music leads the audience to suspect that another murder is on the way. But it never comes. The attendant survives, 25 cents richer and slightly bewildered.

The minimalist score in No Country teases the audience throughout the film. Nondiegetic sound (the film snob's [] preferred term for "ominous music" and other sounds not caused by a character's actions) pops up only five times in the film, and each of those times it is used in the manner described above. Consider the scene in which Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) returns to his motel, only to find the truck driven by the Mexican drug runners who are trying to kill him parked outside his room. Again the soundtrack fades in, creeping up in volume until Chigurh's visage appears on the screen. The macabre hit man takes an exit off the highway, towards Moss's hotel, pulls out his gun, and fires at a bird on a bridge. The music trails off. The suggested showdown has been postponed, and when it does occur there will be no warning, no ominous strings to tell us what's coming. Only violence--swift and sudden violence.

AS I WROTE ABOVE, No Country for Old Men lends itself to this type of analysis. Just released on DVD, obsessives (like this writer) will delight in the ability to view scenes over and over again--skipping chapters and examining shots with the care a detective gives to a crime scene. The extra features are negligible, but that's no matter. Joel and Ethan Coen's picture is meaty enough to entertain for days.

And yet, as much as the film's intricacies excite and demand attention, one can't help but leave the movie feeling cold. Some claim that this is because the movie is nihilistic, but that's not quite right. The viewer's surrogate in No Country, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), is a man of faith, even if he is vaguely annoyed that God doesn't play a bigger role in his life. Rather, the feeling has to do with the mechanical nature of the film. What makes it easy to analyze also makes it hard to love.

Consider, for example, the film's final 15 minutes or so and the ambiguity it introduces. During that time, there are three scenes that could have served as the final one, none of which is terribly comforting. In the first, Bell and a relative discuss the harshness of the American West throughout the years and settle on the notion that--green hair, nose rings, and the decline of youth culture notwithstanding--America has never been a country for old men. This is followed by Chigurh's awful fulfillment of a promise he made to Moss, in which it becomes clear that he has gotten away with the money and will face no serious repercussions for his crime. Lastly, we see one final coda featuring Bell, in which he describes two dreams involving his father with his wife.

This last scene is maddening. "The first [dream] I don't remember too well," Bell tells his wife. "It was about meeting him in town somewheres, and he gives me some money. I think I lost it." Okay, fair enough. This is a metaphor for the plot device driving the action of the film--the $2 million that Moss stumbles upon in the film's opening moments. No Country for Old Men isn't really about the pursuit of cash. Then what is it about?