No Country for Old Men (slight spoilers)

February 8, 2008 at 10:18 pm 1 comment

There is a debate among film buffs about which style of film is the best. ‘Formulism’ films emphasize style and the technical aspects of a film over the story. That’s not to say that there is more style than substance, rather the style of the film is just as important as the story (although in some cases more important than the story). Citizen Kane is often referred to as the best example of a formulism film. Orson Welles’ first film is a masterpiece of ‘the shot’: the cinematography is flawless, the staging is perfect, and the set design is superb. ‘Realism’ films focus more on putting you ‘in the moment’, preferring not to focus on mise-en-scene, and making things as real as possible. Vittorrio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief is a prime example of a realism film. De Sica’s film used non- or first-time actors and real locations to tell his story about a man who goes on a city-wide search for his stolen bicycle with his son. The film was shot in the aftermath of World War Two, against the backdrop of post-war Italy, so the availability of sets and studios was limited and the realism approach fit the film perfectly.

In modern times, the line between formulism and realism films is becoming increasingly blurred. The Coen Bros.’ film version of Cormac McArthy’s No Country for Old Men is a film that walks a fine line between the two film styles. Silence is prevalent throughout the film, primarily using diegetic sound. There is no noticeable music that comes from a traditional soundtrack, using the shots themselves to help transition from scene to scene. For example, there is a scene in a motel where Javier Bardem’s character (Anton) is hunting Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin). Instead of suspenseful music (high-pitched strings or a pulsing drum beat, for example), there is nothing but silence. Only when Anton attempts to enter Moss’ room is the silence broken.

For examples of No Country as a formulism-type film, you just need to look at the characters. Throughout the film, I found myself rooting for ‘the good guy’, Llewelyn Moss, even though at first it seems his actions were motivated by greed. Moss stumbles upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad in the desert with bodies lying about, guns scattered, and pounds of drugs sitting in the back of a truck. He then comes upon a case with a large amount of cash in it and decides to take it. As the opening act continues, we see that Moss lives with his wife in a trailer park, obviously not the setting Moss is content to live with. He intends to use the money to provide a better life for his wife and himself, shedding some light on his true motive for taking the money. Moss also returns to the desert to deliver water to the lone survivor of the shootout: a Mexican who was wounded and left sitting in a truck with the drugs. Unfortunately for Moss, attempting to do this one good thing would prove to be the catalyst that causes the rest of the movie.

‘The bad guy’, Anton Chigurh, is, as Moss puts it later in the movie, “the ultimate badass.” He is a one man killing machine; you can slow him down, but you can’t stop him. The Coen Bros.’ seem to have created the most terrifying serial killer since Hannibal Lecter (I would place Lecter above Chigurh only because a man that can convince me to rip my own face off is probably a bit more evil than a guy that will shoot me for no reason). Oddly enough, he and Moss share one thing in common: they are men of principle. Neither will stop until they do whatever it is they set out to do. In Moss case, it’s to escape, safely, with the money and get to his wife. For Anton, it’s to get the money back however he can. Without giving too much away, there are several key scenes, both of which occur later in the film, that provide key insight into Anton’s mind: he does things, like kill certain people, that would seem unnecessary, even foolhardy, in order to prove a point. Anton’s trail of bodies is never random; there is a reason for every kill he makes, but to those who believe killing is wrong on any level, they will see Anton as a homicidal maniac with no remorse.

Then there are characters like Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Bell and Moss’ wife Carla Jean, who are witnesses as well as victims to the violence. Bell, an acquaintance of Moss, attempts to uphold the law by recovering the money and getting to Moss before Anton does. Carla Jean just wants her husband to be safe, but must, for obvious reasons, stay as far from him as possible. Sheriff Bell is the one that could stand to lose the most from these events. He’s getting old and world-weary. Bell realizes what kind of monster he’s up against when trailing Anton, and he realizes that the violence perpetrated by Man against Man is never-ending (and more twisted as the years go on).

Joel and Ethan Coen have crafted a modern masterpiece. Not since Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs has a film about serial killers and murders generated so much acclaim. No Country for Old Men (along with David Fincher’s excellent Zodiac, also released last year) sets a new standard for the serial killer genre. While many opinions on this film (including this one) praise it for the performances and portrayal of violence, the film also works purely on a technical level. Every camera angle, every lens choice, every dolly shot is thought out. While it’s still up in the air whether or not this film will win the Best Picture award at the Oscars, I believe it is worthy of it in every way. No Country for Old Men is dark, unforgiving, and brutal, but it’s also evidence of modern day filmmaking at its finest, effectively blending two styles of filmmaking to tell an ‘art house’ edge-of-your-seat thriller.




(images from Yahoo)


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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. striderdemme  |  February 9, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    Nice post. I think that NCFOM will take Best Picture this year, but it’s a close call. I still need to see Michael Clayton.


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