Semi-Spoiler Warning: Padraic recommended that I spoiler-tag this post because I do, in extremely vague details, discuss the climax of No Country for Old Men in this review. I don’t think I give anything away that would limit the enjoyment of the film, but I’ll add this just to be safe. If you don’t want to read on, know that No Country is one of the best films of the year, and well worth your time to check out.
Why do we have critics?
The simplest practical reason is that no one person can see every film, listen to every album or read every book, so they need opinion leaders to act as filters and let them know what is the best use of their time and money. There’s lots of other reasons for criticism (cultural theory and analysis, to promote under-the-radar films), but it’s that practical function that justifies their existence to the public at large.
On this level, film criticism usually fails. Miserably.
Let’s use No Country for Old Men as a case study. Truly one of the best films I’ve seen all year, the movie is a return to form for the Coen Brothers after a series of half-baked and inconsistent features. It does everything that they do best: enforce a strong sense of setting that drives its characters, present stories of obsession and characters who will go to every end to appease it, and infuse their dark drama with even darker comedy. As such, it’s been a critical sensation, and the first of the fall’s major Oscar contenders.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that a film isn’t going to connect with audiences; in fact, for much of No Country I was convinced that this was going to be a huge word-of-mouth hit for the Coens. Not only are they at the top of their game, but the actors match them note for note. Javier Bardem had best get an Oscar nomination for his performance as Anton Chigurh, one of the most terrifyingly morally-bankrupt film villains I’ve seen on screen since Hannibal Lecter. Josh Brolin reveals talent that most of us never knew he had, and Tommy Lee Jones, with the least showy role, provides a great sense of charming gravitas.
The bottom line is that the film is just cool. There’s blood to spare, there’s some amazingly suspenseful sequences that will have audiences on the edge of their seat, and there’s a great methodical pace that allows the chase film to maintain its momentum from start to…
…well, until the final act of the film hits.
What happens? Just like Cormac McCarthy did in the original novel, the Coens decide to stop working within the Western genre and decide to turn it on its head. They decide to make a statement about inevitability and the parade of violence that they started. They decide that the protagonist of their story isn’t quite who the audience might think it would be. And they choose to deny the audience any euphoric pleasure from the events of their climax. Instead of playing to expectations, they challenge them.
Here’s the divide: critical film viewers, be they professional reviewers or just blokes like me, love it when films do this. We want to be challenged, to have our preconceptions broken and bent. The average filmgoer – or art consumer of any sort – is there to be entertained, which to them means appeasing their expectations, not confronting them. They don’t want a critique on a classic genre– they want that classic genre as it is, told to them with a slight twist in flavour but with the core themes intact.
As I left the theatre after the film was over, I was left with the distinct impression that most people who saw it were leaving the theatre disappointed instead of delighted. They weren’t happy with the idea that the film took them on an entirely different journey than what they expected, no matter how worthwhile the destination might have been. Would they blame the Coens? Cormac McCarthy? Or would they walk out bewildered at how a small army of critics could mislead them into seeing a movie that wasn’t right for them?
Watch: No Country for Old Men trailer