It has been nearly a decade since the Coen brothers have done anything worth remembering. Most of their recent efforts have been silly little films that tried too hard to be cutesy, or artsy or both. The Man Who Wasn’t There was a serious piece, but it bogged down in an effort to be too abstrusely artistic and mystical; the rest of their recent offerings have bordered on ridiculous. But the trailers to No Country for Old Men suggested a return to greatness, to that tight editing and thrilling story telling that made a few of their earlier films some of the best ever made. The first three quarters of the film seemed to confirm that presentiment. The last quarter is the most unexpected and tragic conclusion I can recall.

No Country for Old Men, based on the book by Cormack McCarthy, is a simple tale. Lewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a hunter in Texas and a man of few words, comes across a large drug deal gone wrong. With none of the dealers left alive, he makes off with the money he finds. An expert assassin, Anton Chiguhr (Javier Bardem) who seems to represent the callousness of chance and fate, comes looking to kill him and get the loot back. That pretty much sums up the important parts… at least I think it does. The movie’s ending makes me think I might have missed something.

Perhaps that something is the character of Ed Tom Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Though Jones’ performance is nothing to complain about, I found his character to be superfluous. He opens the movie with a voice over, and then figures prominently in the ending that so misfires. In between it is difficult to see why he appears in the movie at all; ditto for Woody Harrelson’s Carson Wells whose absence wouldn’t hurt the movie in the slightest.

The movie works best when Lewellyn Moss and Anton Chiguhr are pitted one against the other. Everything else feels extraneous, even though all the characters are well portrayed (in particular I was impressed with Kelly Macdonald, whose role was also unimportant but extremely well portrayed). When the movie is about these two, it enraptures its audience. When it strays from this storyline, it loses momentum.

The Coen brothers waste little time in getting the action started, but they don’t rush things. In their careful, methodical way they draw you deeper and deeper into a story filled with paranoia and tense expectation as the footsteps of unseen figures creak in a hallway, as shadows and silhouettes reveal only enough to titillate the imagination. The best word to describe it all is “gripping”.

One is left in the merciless grip of the movie for just about the entire first three quarters. And then disaster strikes. Just when we can feel an exhilarating climax drawing near, we get blindsided by the most unfathomable development and the movie proceeds in the most unexpected and unsatisfying direction imaginable. It feels like the ending to another movie, which just happens to have some of the same characters, has been nailed onto the body of No Country. One first experiences a great shock, and then a worry that the directors are going to let all the movie’s momentum fade away, and then a dawning fear that there will be no attempt to reclaim that momentum, that the credits are just going to start to roll. And indeed they do roll, suddenly, at a point that feels arbitrarily chosen, as if the movie had reached some predetermined time limit and it must languish unfinished for eternity.

Though I never saw it coming, a bit of sober reflection leads me to believe that the nature of the ending is tied to the nature of Bardem’s character. Perhaps it is a commentary on chance and fate. Why this commentary must be made at the expense of the movie’s entertainment value I cannot figure. If the Coen brothers wish to explore the theme of random chance, and if they feel they cannot do this while following the pillars of storytelling, then I suggest they write an essay on the subject. When they feel like they want to tell a fine story and not disappoint they may pick up the camera again.

The spectacular failure that such a promising movie became leads me to wonder if cinema itself is dying. Artists prefer to seek their own unique vision, to be trailblazers. But how much room is left on which to blaze new trails? Music went through its own crisis from which it never recovered. Composers like Bach established it as a great art form; men like Mozart and then Beethoven took it to new heights; Mahler and others like him started to chafe under restrictions and began to explore some radical territory; and finally men like Schoenberg killed music, having apparently been left with so little room to innovate that with his twelve-tone music he ripped apart everything that music was about rather than continue to make pale imitations of what had already been done.

Does No Country point to similar problems? Of course the fun popcorn movies with ever improving special effects will continue to draw in great crowds, but what about the truly artistic films which are the foundation for the art form? It seems like the Coen brothers disdained to make a predictable ending such as has been done thousands of times. But could they not find a unique way to conclude that doesn’t ruin what they set up? Did Shyamalan mine the last of the surprise endings? Have we reached and passed Peak Cinema? Has it all been done before so many times that Schoenberg’s evil specter has come to haunt movies?

Or am I making way too much of this? It does seem that the last decade has been a poor one for movies, but maybe we are just in a slow spot while we wait for the next great idea that revitalizes the art. Perhaps No Country is nothing more than an exasperating movie that should have been better. Only time will tell, but in my mind one thing is certain: I have never been so frustrated with a movie as I was with No Country for Old Men. I hope I never am again.

Grade: A movie like this defies standard scores. Grade withheld.

Lions for Lambs Poster Release Date: November 21, 2007
Rated: R for strong graphic violence and some language.
Running Time: 122 min.
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson
Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Screenplay: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Cormac McCarthy (novel)
Studio: Miramax
Official Website: Click Here

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