No Country for Old Men is about as close to perfect as you’re ever going to see in a movie. Not a single shot is unnecessary. The pacing is perfect; both for the movie overall, and for individual scenes that feel as if they were meticulously orchestrated down to a fraction of a second. Almost all of the performances are absolutely dead-on (the mother-in-law felt like she’d just come in off the set of “Mama’s Family”). The dialogue has a perfect rhythm and it perfectly conveys the character. There are no artificial moments; I’ve heard real people use exactly the same cadences and expressions as these characters. The plot stays completely true to the characters and the theme. The sound design is flawless. The suspense scenes are so perfectly executed, they act as a reminder that yes, movies can make you feel something. The movie has enough confidence to show exactly what it needs to, no more and no less. There are no cheap gimmicks, easy outs, or implausibly pat resolutions.
If any filmmaker other than the Coen Brothers had made this movie, it would probably be his masterpiece. The problem is that it was made by the Coen Brothers, so you have to unfairly compare it to their other movies.
And I ended up disappointed, because it just seems superfluous. They’ve made movies that convey all of the “meat” of No Country for Old Men, in a single scene. We already know they have an almost sadistic sense of how to make the perfect suspense scene; they proved that the second the newspaper hit the screen door in Blood Simple. We already know they can convey despair (Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn’t There), or blind rage (Miller’s Crossing), or coldly senseless violence (Fargo). This movie just felt to me as if it were made by extremely talented filmmakers who happened to be big fans of the Coens. Because ultimately, it’s missing its soul, that spark that separates very, very good work from genius.
Before I’d seen it, a friend described No Country for Old Men as “kind of like Fargo, but not funny.” That’s pretty accurate, except I’d take it even farther and call it the anti-Fargo.
They’re very similar movies. Both are about honest cops in a relatively simple and peaceful environment, being exposed to genuine senseless evil, all because of a basically ethical character who makes a single immoral decision. But where Fargo had moments of humor, No Country for Old Men is almost completely humorless. Where Fargo is ultimately uplifting, No Country for Old Men is relentlessly nihilistic.
One of the criticisms frequently made against the Coens is that they’re too arch, too concerned about the style of their movies to care about real characters. I’ve always thought the opposite: they genuinely love their characters, they like hearing them talk, they like seeing how they react to situations, and they like seeing them come out stronger in the end. (Except for Blood Simple, which is really just a bunch of suspense scenes taking advantage of the fact that all the characters are impossibly dense). I don’t get that sense from No Country for Old Men; they don’t hate the characters, they just really don’t care that much about them at all. I mean, they’re all going to die eventually, anyway, so why bother?
After the final monologue and the cut to black, I just felt kind of cheated. Definitely not because I was expecting a quick and easy resolution (spoiler: there’s not one), but because it just hung there, as if I were supposed to be impressed that it didn’t give me a quick and easy resolution. It struck me as sophomoric, in the literal sense: I felt like I’d just had to listen to two hours of a talented but pretentious college sophomore who’d just discovered Nietzsche.
And I just sat there in the dark, thinking, “Really? ‘Evil is everywhere, and life is random.’ After all this time, that’s all you’ve got to tell me?” For a moment, I thought I saw my father in the distance carrying a horn filled with fire, but as it turns out it was just the usher telling us the movie was over and it was time to leave.