No Country for Old Men
Cormac McCarthy, Joel Coen, and Ethan Coen, 2007

#2, 2007 Skandies

(spoilers start right away)

I am on record as a fan of movies that initially seem to be one type of story and then turn out to be something else entirely. No Country for Old Men is one of these. At first it seems to be a thriller in the North by Northwest vein, with characters trying to off one another in pursuit of a MacGuffin while reciting lines designed to be movie quotes. But then all of a sudden one of them gets tagged and the chase is over. So the last half hour or so is basically a different movie, as the grizzled sheriff and his elderly associates reflect on how they aren't cut out for this new, more violent world.

There's just one problem: the thriller portion of the movie is so good that the switcheroo feels like taking a step down. Anyone who reads these writeups knows that I'm not really into action movies, especially violent ones, and at first I thought this one was going to be too much to take, as we watch a psychopathic killer brutalize everyone in his path. But after the chase got underway even I was won over — it's masterfully done, very suspenseful. Plus the villain is so incredibly loathsome — all the more so once he starts showing flashes of intelligence — that I was really pulling for the laconic hunter who swiped his MacGuffin to elude him. The hunter displays enough resourcefulness that for a while the movie seems like the best Batman vs. Two-Face showdown ever. (Which must have been awkward for Tommy Lee Jones, given that he was a key player in one of the worst.) And then... it's not. And the movie that replaces Batman vs. Two-Face just isn't as good. Really, old people maundering about how the world's going downhill? I kept waiting for the Dana Carvey cameo. It's kind of telling that Cormac McCarthy had to set this story in 1980; in the 1990s, of course, crime rates plummeted and made the whole "new, more violent world" meme obsolete.

The interesting angle for me is that in the project I've been working on, I've actually been fighting against this sort of structure, arguing that the story-within-a-story should be satisfying in its own right. To me, No Country for Old Men serves as ammunition in this argument. But people seem to have liked its structure enough to give it a bunch of Oscars so I guess talking about what a letdown it is might be a losing proposition.

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