I almost always go to see the Cohen Brothers' films. Raising Arizona was a high school cult favorite, and then after writing about Blood Simple for my first film class in college, I decided that the Cohen Brothers were cool and deserved my full attention.
Sometimes the attention paid off. Miller's Crossing is still, to my mind, the most entertaining gangster film ever made. (The Godfather, of course, will remain as the best gangster film, but sometimes less than the best is more entertaining.) O Brother, Where Art Thou was a truly original creation that brought American folk music into the spotlight; I found myself saying, defensively, "Hey, I was into Ralph Stanley before Ralph Stanley was cool."
But, then there are the disappointments. The slightly surreal visual style that was so engaging in Miller's Crossing became oddly disturbing and pointless in Barton Fink. The Big Labowski was a Big Waste; I felt like I had discovered a once-formidable but now washed-up movie in a shabby hotel room, strung out after mainlining Cheech and Chong scripts. Fargo, I admit I enjoyed, though the foot sticking out of the wood chipper was a sad signal: grotesque humor, rather than magnificent plotting, may be the calling card of the Brothers from now on.
Which brings me to No Country for Old Men, their latest genre-bending installment. My wife and I have been so busy we can't even watch a whole movie in one sitting. After watching the first half of No Country for Old Men we were excited about watching the rest of it. It had been a long time since I had seen such memorable characters: the Hunter, every inch the cool, competent-yet-sympathetic action hero; the homespun, folk-wise old Sheriff; and perhaps the creepiest assassin-villain ever to pump tension into a thriller. (Javier Bardem's Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in the role of Anton Chigurh is thoroughly deserved.) With break-neck action, building suspense, plot twists at once unexpected and consistent . . . we couldn't wait to see how it ended.
Which it . . . didn't. At least, not in the conventional movie sense. You don't completely become aware of Hollywood movie conventions until you see one violated, and boy, do I feel violated. I can handle movies with tragic endings â€“ that is, movies ending with the death(s) of the hero(s). But convention normally demands that something transcends their deaths: their mission survives them, or their heroic example, or their moral purity, or their love for each other. Even in death, something has to rise up and say, "Death can't touch this," in order for the audience to feel closure.
But after all that action, the relentless hunt, the suspense, the action . . . No Country for Old Men just ends with death, period. Everyone remotely likeable in the film winds up abruptly snuffed out, or anxiously, helplessly awaiting death. Only the most villainous of villains walks away, cheating death just when you think he might get his just desserts. So what is this movie about, anyway? A rule of thumb of literary analysis is that the last person to speak is the main character, and the last thing he says points to the meaning of the story. In this case, it's the Sheriff, newly retired, anxious, reflecting on his own end prefigured in a dream. The message of No Country for Old Men is: "You're end is coming. Ain't nuthin' you can do about it. Sucks, huh?" Thanks a lot, Cohen Brothers. I suppose Cormac McCarthy, the author of the novel upon which the film is based, will have to take the blame for the plot. It sounds like a great novel . . . but then again, great doesn't always equal entertaining.