The Three Burials of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN; Three Takes on Its Overrated Status

The Three Burials of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN; Three Takes on Its Overrated Status

null[Editor’s note: The following is a collection of essays on the critical overestimation of No Country for Old Men, by Lincoln Flynn, Stacia Kissick Jones, and Alan Pyke.]

No Country for Old Men? Overrated!!!

When the Coen brothers’ eponymous film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men was released in 2007, it received near-universal critical acclaim; after the subpar efforts Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, it indicated an artistic comeback for its directors.

In general, the honed and virtuosic filmmaking skills of the Coens, combined with their postmodern storytelling sensibilities, give their detractors reason to call them talented but glib. Yet with No Country, the Coens-as-adaptors had ostensibly harnessed their usual instincts in the service of McCarthy’s source material, while using their talents as directors to make it a dynamic and multifaceted movie that had proved their salt as genuine auteurs.

Though many consider No Country to be an untouchable classic in the Coens’ oeuvre, it remains tonally flawed. Consequently—and at the risk of putting “my soul at hazard” by receiving invective from die-hard fans of the Coens and No Country—I consider it to be overrated and feel that A Serious Man and the Coens’ True Grit adaptation are more artistically successful later career films.

Effectively, No Country’s plot can be divided into two parts. The first part tells of the flight and pursuit of Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) by Texas Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) and psychotic hit-man Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) after Moss takes money from the scene of a drug-deal-related massacre. The second part resolves the three-tiered chase and further develops Bell’s melancholic nature.

Well within the Coens’ wheelhouse, the first part is basically a thriller that incorporates aspects of film noir and the western and is filmed or stylized in an artful and “resplendently austere” manner. The violence is gruesome, the editing is efficient, and the action and humor are darkly entertaining. The second part, on the other hand, is more restrained and less gruesome and humorous, in order to amplify the tragic and bleak resolution of the story.

This dichotomization of No Country is my main issue with the film: if Sheriff Bell’s resigned fear of entropy is where the basic theme of No Country lies, and if that fear is exemplified by the mayhem that is instigated by Llewellyn and Anton in the first half of the movie, then why did the Coens decide to represent that violence as slick and thrilling Grand Guignol? This is an inconsistency that makes the two parts of No Country incongruous and its resolution less devastating and resonant than it should be.

As I understand the character of Sheriff Bell, he doesn’t see anything fun or exciting in any of the chaos that he observes as a person and lawman. To him it is soul crushing and proof of the absence of God or any greater, noble meaning. Therefore, the film’s violence shouldn’t be kinetic or vivid. Likewise, if Bell’s saturnine worldview is thematically important in the end, then why is his apathy used as a source of much of the film’s gallows humor? This aspect feels appropriate to the Coens’ style but inappropriate to the story’s point.

When talking to a friend about the most recent James Bond film, she joked that “another name for Skyfall could’ve been No Country for Old Women.” Both No Country for Old Men and Skyfall feature Javier Bardem playing relentless villains who wear odd coiffures; also, both films were shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins. Moreover, both films have older authoritarian characters, played by Tommy Lee Jones and Judi Dench,, who respectively underscore the similar theses of each movie. Yet, as Skyfall is a franchise movie that had the added bonus of being dramatic and exquisitely made, for me No Country for Old Men is a well crafted yet thematically compromised art house version of a Terminator movie.–Lincoln Flynn

degrees in Film and Digital Media studies and Moving Image Archive
Studies, Lincoln Flynn lives in Los Angeles and writes about film on a sporadic
basis at His Twitter handle is @Lincoln_Flynn.


Why Blood Simple Towers Over No Country for Old Men

Characters in the films of Joel and Ethan Coen tend toward the archetypical, but rather than existing in their expected cinematic habitat, they’re placed in ridiculous and macabre situations they simply are not prepared for. Though it is usually a delightful conceit, in No Country for Old Men (2005), it starts to become a belabored what-if scenario rather than a meaningful set of juxtapositions. No Country is a meditation on mortality and the eternal fight between humanity and inexplicable evil, set in rural Texas in the early 1980s, the same locale and era as the Coens’ early neo-noir Blood Simple. Both feature postmodern aesthetics, pitch-perfect and witty dialogue, the celebration of regional variances in language and culture, and characters suffering from a surfeit of poor decisions. They are both without question exceptional films. Comparisons between them are unavoidable, though in terms of style and substance, Blood Simple is the more successful of the two.

In Blood Simple, a series of misunderstandings and double-crosses combine with darkly comic undertones in a situation that could be resolved, or at least improved, if the two main characters had just talked to each other. The characters are at times very silly, an endearing trait in a film that examines the tragedy of poor choices. The Coens have since ceased caring whether the audience sympathizes with characters or not, though that tack is quite effective in No Country for Old Men. While Blood Simple is about lack of communication, No Country shows us that, sometimes, communication makes no difference at all. A flattened affect throughout the film heightens the realization that emotional connections simply do not matter in the face of true evil.

Where this flatness of emotion goes wrong is in No Country‘s tendency to leave moments unfinished. The Coens at one time were more than willing to let audiences figure things out for themselves. Ambiguity in No Country, such as not showing a key death  or ending a scene abruptly, is not meant to lead the audience to fill in points of the narrative themselves, but rather to allow the filmmakers to limit the emotions available to the audience. It’s artifice designed specifically to deny catharsis, grief or resolution, all part of the Coens’ rigorous cinematic control, but at great expense to realism.

Blood Simple, like most Coen brothers films, is clearly referential. One of the best such moments is the brazen borrowing of the famous ground-level swooping shot from Evil Dead (1981), a film which Joel Coen had worked on as assistant editor. The reference simultaneously invokes humor, the horror genre and a nod to burgeoning indie film movement of the film’s time. But where references like these in Blood Simple are natural and lighthearted, in No Country they are cold, calculated moments of manipulation. No Country, for example, copies the restaurant scene from Fargo; in these scenes, police officers in both films achieve necessary moments of clarity. It’s heavy-handed and out of place in No Country, a lazy quotation of their own cultural milestone without thought for its relevance.

Early in the Coens’ filmmaking careers, contempt was not a successful trait in a character. M. Emmet Walsh’s P.I. in Blood Simple possesses an undisguised derision for everyone around him, but it is undermined by the resourcefulness and luck of those he’s trying to con. For the Coens, the purpose of contempt has changed, and is now often the single biggest factor in resolving conflict: A character who shows contempt almost always wins out.

This is especially true in the case of the psychotic Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in No Country, a killer whose contemptuous attitude is proven right time and again. It is his most important and identifiable characteristic, one that allows his particular brand of evil to succeed. Meanwhile, small-town sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is just as exasperated with the folks around him, though he keeps his contempt in check, leaving him powerless against the sociopath’s self-imposed moral superiority.

The disdain for humanity in No Country, as in many of their other films, spills over into the filmmakers’ contempt for the audience. The Coens seem loathe nowadays to even acknowledge there is such a thing a worthwhile everyday person. In Blood Simple, Ray (John Getz) is an everyman archetype, on the surface as bland as John Gavin in Psycho (1960), yet we’re fascinated by his actions and sympathetic with him when things go wrong. In No Country, a series of everypersons, both men and women, are grotesques, stubborn and dull and frustrating. In an attempt to lead the audience into the mind of a killer, the Coens want us to be as unimpressed with these everyday people as Chigurh is; once you resist, Chigurh becomes caricature, just another dead-eyed psycho with a gimmick.

In the process of subverting themes in No Country for Old Men, the Coens often dispense with narrative altogether, preferring to use the film as a vehicle for delivering their own signature style. The film never quite gets around to challenging the validity of conventional cinematic narrative techniques, though it clearly means to do so. Blood Simple, in contrast, challenges common genre constructs precisely because it uses standard narrative techniques, and also allows for a humanity that encourages viewers to more closely engage with the moral and ethical dilemmas presented. Though both films are fine works in their own right, Blood Simple is a more exceptional one—even if it is more traditional.–Stacia Kissick Jones

Stacia Kissick Jones is a recovering literature major, freelance editor
and film critic. She is a regular contributor at
Spectrum Culture Online
ClassicFlix, and blogs at She Blogged By Night

nullNo Breathing Room: The Crucial Flaw of No Country for Old Men

A movie can be great and overrated, and so it is with the Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Men. The Coens’ trademark deftness with light and framing and showing a story rather than telling it gave us the best cinematic treatment of Cormac McCarthy to date. But much praise for the film conflates its technical brilliance with an imagined depth and detail of thought. In reality this film manages only to sketch ideas that have been more fully explored in other, similar films.

Considering the challenges of recreating the ideas from Cormac McCarthy’s notoriously thorny and meditative prose with visual language, No Country For Old Men achieves some wondrous things. The choice to eschew music almost entirely is particularly inspired as a reflection of McCarthy’s harsh, amoral world, and excellent performances help animate his ambivalent, despairing take on nostalgia for a simpler time that never quite was. A few things get lost in translation, but it’s a mistake to get too caught up in comparing book and film here.

The problem instead is that in effecting their translation, the Coens produced a film that only engages the story’s themes at arm’s length. The pulpy churn of the main plot crowds out any deeper meaning the three main characters’ pursuits of their respective fables might have.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) pursues the simple self-deception that he’s cunning enough to steal $2 million from a cartel and live to enjoy it. That sets the captivating plot into motion, but the Coens excise some significant chunks of his flight, and freeze-dry the thematic nutrition out of his arc in the process. He’s fun to root for, but exists solely to necessitate the chase.

Anton Chigurh’s (Javier Bardem) fable is that the underworld’s predatory jungle law responds to fate and luck, and can be influenced by how men tend to their sense of honor. That’s a promising concept, but it’s only hinted at, never fleshed out. No Country‘s most memorable moments involve Bardem leaning his full weight into dazzling lines that don’t add up to anything coherent. “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?” is a great bit of language, but Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) is right: Chigurh just sounds insane. Beyond the grace of his syntax, his pseudo-existentialist riffs carry no more weight than a Bond villain’s cackling soliloquy about the motives for his evil plot.

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell’s (Tommy Lee Jones) fable is that men committed to rightness and legality are seeing a decay in their ability to preserve moral rectitude. Ed Tom’s weary grappling gets a fuller treatment, getting critiqued by fellow lawmen—“What you got ain’t new,” his uncle tells him—and reflected in the inter-generational tensions that crop up repeatedly at the edges of the story. Ed Tom’s statements are the closest No Country comes to actually biting down on some ideas rather than showing us the chain restaurant picture menu versions of them. But he, too, is just along for the ride of the main plot, popping in and out whenever it’s convenient.

There’s a better Tommy Lee Jones film on all these themes: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada tackles fatally bad luck, nostalgic male honor fulfillment, and modernity’s infringement on cowboy nobility without the sexy crime potboiler stuff that makes No Country so great an entertainment and so lightweight a film. The Coens have also done more with these ideas, in Blood Simple. The nominal stakes in these two movies are far lower than No Country‘s $2 million satchel of cash, but Blood Simple wrings more reflection on violence, mistrust, and self-deception out of a $10,000 wad. There’s no bouncing ball of cash to follow through Melquiades Estrada, but rather the corpse and memory of a man far unluckier than anyone on the wrong end of Chigurh’s cattle gun. The grand allure of the underworld pursuit makes No Country more fun, but it also reduces the big ideas its characters are chasing to window dressing for a nervy, unpredictable slaughter. The comparative simplicity and mundanity of the core stories in Blood Simple and Melquiades Estrada mean that those same ideas have room to breathe.–Alan Pyke

Pyke is a writer and commentator on film, television, fiction, music,
and politics, with a particular fascination for hiphop. He writes film
reviews for
TinyMixTapes and BrightestYoungThings, cultural criticism at The Daily Banter, and occasionally posts at his own site.

8 thoughts on “The Three Burials of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN; Three Takes on Its Overrated Status”

  1. All three negative critiques seem to hinge on one point – NCFOM's cinematic style and/or narrative structure undercut any meaning. However, that's entirely the point of the film. There is no meaning, just as there is no meaning in life. Any meaning in life that could be is foiled by the events of life.

    The best treatment of this film that I have read was written by a New Testament professor, J.R. Daniel Kirk. You can read his interpretation of the film at Reel Spirituality. Search for "No Country for Old Qoheleth."


  2. "As I understand the character of Sheriff Bell, he doesn’t see anything fun or exciting in any of the chaos that he observes as a person and lawman. To him it is soul crushing and proof of the absence of God or any greater, noble meaning. Therefore, the film’s violence shouldn’t be kinetic or vivid."

    I'm not getting the A-to-B logic here. The violence in NCFOM is indeed captivating, but that does not equate to being *fun*. Chigurh's actions aren't endorsed. It's simply that their being alluring illustrates that chaos can be…kind of sexy. Dangerously so, to the point where giving in to temptation will result in your destruction. To run with your ideas about God: maybe characters like Chigurh existing doesn't just represent the absence of God, but the presence of the Devil. Everyone wants to give in and party alongside the devil sometimes, though they know it's the morally incorrect choice.

    What I'm getting at overall, I guess, is that while I think a modern director like Fincher has huge problems with representing the supposedly "Bad" actions in his films as far too much fun, resulting in thematic contradiction, the Coen's articulation of violence in NCFOM doesn't have those problems.

    Changing gears: I'm cool with the idea of critical reevaluation and all that on the surface but this seems like a humongous waste of an opportunity for Coen Bros. week. They have so many great films and instead a fifth of this series is put towards (admittedly well-written) takedowns. Why not just make the day about Blood Simple. and why that film is so great instead of evaluating it ONLY in relation to No Country? The worst violation in all of this: using the word "overrated." Really? I thought it was such common knowledge among film critic circles now that reducing assessment down to that word and acting as if there's some officially ruled-upon critical consensus is all but detestable. I expect more careful word choice from Press Play.


  3. Interesting takes on the film, and it's good to read Jones's appreciation of "Blood Simple," a nearly neglected film in the Coen's work more often than not. This one thought struck me as a polar opposite of my reaction to "No Country," though:

    "Ambiguity in No Country, such as not showing a key death or ending a scene abruptly, is not meant to lead the audience to fill in points of the narrative themselves, but rather to allow the filmmakers to limit the emotions available to the audience. It's artifice designed specifically to deny catharsis, grief or resolution, all part of the Coens' rigorous cinematic control, but at great expense to realism."

    Spot on, right until the last part of that last sentence, the "…at great expense to realism."

    For me, I thought that the narrative-neutering artifice was completely confounding to the cinematic experience, or maybe the "cinematic realism" in that the lack of resolution for audience's expectations and even our emotions felt more of disjointed "real life" than cinematic life. In most movies, we expect more narrative resolution than life would ever bother to offer us, and the Coens methodically, cruelly and with sure intention deny us any form of resolution. They leave us instead with the unanswerable moral quandaries Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Corbin and Rodger Boyce discuss at various points in the film, and little else.

    On first viewing, my expectations lead me to feel truly miffed at the Coen's bald audacity; on further reflection and viewings, I revel in it. I don't know if that in itself is reason enough to praise the film to the rafters, especially since they did spend so long setting up what seemed to be a traditionally-told narrative, only to cut audiences off at the knees, but damn if it isn't richer than wrapping the whole film up in a neat package would have likely been.


  4. This might be the strangest argument I've ever heard: "As I understand the character of Sheriff Bell, he doesn’t see anything fun or exciting in any of the chaos that he observes as a person and lawman. To him it is soul crushing and proof of the absence of God or any greater, noble meaning. Therefore, the film’s violence shouldn’t be kinetic or vivid."
    Really hoping this post is to be followed with some reaffirmations of the brilliance of NCFOM… (Jeffrey Overstreet, are you there?)


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