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No Country…

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It’s not at all unusual for me to change my opinions of Coen brothers’ films on repeated viewings; I like The Big Lebowski and Intolerable Cruelty more each time I see them, while O’ Brother and Fargo have dropped (although not precipitously) with time. So with that caveat in hand, I’ll say that I liked No Country for Old Men more than Scott liked it.

It’s important at the outset to exclude the “but it was in the novel” defense; the Coens chose to make a movie from McCarthy’s weakest recent novel, and then chose to hold almost exactly to the text, so any flaws in the film can’t be blamed on the book. That said, I think what they’ve done is quite impressive, given that they managed to turn a mediocre novel into an outstanding film. Of course, a mediocre novel from one of the two or three best American novelists of his generation isn’t the same as, you know, a mediocre novel, but the point still stands; the Coens improved on the source material.

Scott and Roy didn’t care for the telling-but-not-showing elements of the film, including particularly the Tommy Lee Jones narration. I have more of a tolerance for this kind of thing (especially when it’s done well, and it can be done well or badly), so it didn’t bother me as much in the first place. In the second, I think that the telling-not-showing was part of the point. The Coens have experimented in number of films with unreliable narrators, from The Stranger in Big Lebowski to H.I. McDunnough in Raising Arizona. Tommy Lee Jones seemed to me to be part of that family; he has a limited grasp of what’s actually going on while at the same time conveying the image of the wise lawman. It’s not all that surprising that Jones is ineffectual, unable either to find the killer or to save the protagonist or his family. More important is the realization that Sheriff Ed Tom Bell experience isn’t novel, either; there’s nothing particularly new, important, or notable about what happens to him. This is an important part of the film; it runs counter to the “country’s going to hell in a handbasket” move that Ed Tom Bell wants to make, and contributes to the mythic quality of the landscape. It’s not just that I don’t think that telling-but-not-showing was the only way to make this point; I think that exposing the sheriff’s inability to do anything through his extended monologues was itself part of the point. And as Bell’s conversation with Deputy Ellis suggests, the strategy of making folksy commentary about events without actually affecting them in any way is in itself indicative of vanity.

But then again I love McCarthy, and my appreciation of Coen brothers films tends to vary over time, so it’s no certainty that I feel this way on a second viewing.

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