Perspectives on Pop Culture and the Arts

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

No Country for Old Men


Much has already been said, critically and otherwise, about No Country for Old Men’s “hunter becoming the hunted” and the prospects of Javier Bardem winning an Oscar (which would be great). While such clichés citing overt and somewhat elementary symbolism flow like sentimentalism from a Spielberg movie, the more sinister and indicting themes at the core of this story confound such reductive criticism while demanding attention. Contrary to the popular notions of chic hipsters, Country doesn’t settle for merely achieving pop-genre status but, like many of the great films, resists simple classification and generalization to the effect of appealing to multiple tastes and sensibilities while being pointedly insightful. Of course the tense story and action, paced by remarkable editing, grabs our focus as well as our concern. But where the film becomes the most fascinating is in its acute awareness of cultural politics in America.
Although Llewelyn Moss is a sympathetic character who gets drawn into a treacherous stalking match, it’s significant that we understand him as a truly opportunistic guy who is determined to keep a bundle of money he gained by shady chance. That this money is someone else’s never deters him from trying to keep it even though he clearly understands that doing so puts him and his family at terrible risk. This act seems to characterize more of the McMahonian notion of capitalist expectation than one would normally assign to a poor schmuck being stalked by a raging psychopath. To ignore this and idealize a protagonist’s morally dubious actions based on our empathetic support is a remarkably dangerous practice and one that is deftly exploited by the Coens and award winning novelist, Cormac McCarthy.
Similarly, at the center of the film’s parade of ubiquitous and abrupt violence is the idea that no one is exempt and punishment (or dire consequence), however unjust, is inevitable. The fact that neither lawful nor vigilante retribution has a marked effect on minimizing the imminent brutality that Anton Chigurh brings further parallels a culture muddled in paradox and misconception. This is not to say that the film promotes fatalism, but only that it has its finger on the proverbial button of our societal conundrum of violence and terror. As Sherriff Bell’s narration brilliantly bookends the film, we understand the layered and self reflexive irony that veterans returning from conflict are doomed to relive the same madness at home.
No Country for Old Men evokes a haunting vision of social anxiety in America, defying our best efforts to evade responsibility in a way that could generically be considered post neo-western-noir. Despite the ambiguity of such categorization, we could also surmise that the Coen’s have made a masterful adaptation of a striking novel. More importantly, however, the filmmakers appear to have not only been faithful but have had faith in their source material – a virtue to be sure. If artists continue to make comparable renderings because of such stark and relevant works (i.e. if Moss really is America’s redneck Everyman) then our cultural position is bleak indeed.
Assessment: Many stars

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2 Comments:

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