The Top Ten Project #7: No Country For Old Men
Over the next few weeks I'm going to be counting down my ten favourite films from the last decade. The only way to make a list like this is to be completely subjective. I will look at the films that most influenced my own taste. Without further ado... Number 7: No Country For Old Men.
7: NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (Dir: Coen Brothers, 2007)
I've been teetering for ages in trying to work out which recent Coen Brothers film to put in my top ten. As far as I am concerned their last three films have each been brilliant and perfect in their own right. A Serious Man was a strong contender for this spot (I am keeping myself to a one film/one filmmaker rule in this list. You will notice I begin to have trouble with this rule as I get into the top five) but I need a bit more time for rewatching and processing. I have a definite feeling that A Serious Man may be the best film the Coens have ever made but I have chosen No Country For Old Men for another reason. It reminded me that the Coens are masterful filmmakers and boy did I need that reminder.
In 2007 I lumped the Coens in with a group of filmmakers that had their best work behind them. Their recent run of films (starting after The Big Lebowksi which is one of my favourite films of all time) had culminated with The Ladykillers, a painful, derivative and unfunny film. The Coens had lost it completely. Not one thing in The Ladykillers signalled to me that they knew how to make a good film anymore. I had written them off and settled myself in to watch them play out the last 10 or 20 years of their career with a string of bland films. I was wrong. I don't know what happened to signal the change in the Coen's creative process but suddenly No Country For Old Men appeared and it was amazing. It signposted a new stage in their artistic evolution. It was mature, skilful, contemplative with a depth of theme that we hadn't seen from the brothers before. It also was unmistakeably still a smart-ass Coen brothers film. From the jet-black humour to the crisp ear for dialogue it was defiantly a Coen film.
No Country For Old Men also contains one of the most fascinating and experimental endings I have ever seen from the Coens. It seems to wilfully defy audience expectation. The authorial trace of the brothers was so strong for me I could almost see them smirking at the level of audience dissatisfaction as the film cuts away from its climax denying the viewer clear narrative satisfaction, only to have an old man calmly recount a dream. This is incredibly ballsy stuff and I love it. It also strongly reminds me of their ending for Raising Arizona (in several ways, watch them back to back and you will know what I mean).
The Coens continued this trend of experimenting with their endings over their next two films also. Burn After Reading reveals itself to be a shaggy dog story of the highest order and literally has two characters at the end discuss the pointlessness of the whole story we have seen. A Serious Man has a jarringly sharp and seemingly unresolved ending that asks the viewer to work out what it meant. All three films are really interesting formal experiments from a pair of filmmakers who have reached a point in their creative evolution where they are comfortable with trying things that they know can and will frustrate segments of their audience.
No Country For Old Men also is simply a masterwork in suspense filmmaking. Several set-pieces in the film ratchet up tension to such a profound level that I often point people towards these sequences as a masterclass in constructing suspense. The sound design, cinematography and editing are all so perfectly realised that this film is simply a joy to behold.
I view the Coen's last three films as a thematic trilogy. They all share a similar misanthropic tone that is only new in the Coen's oeuvre in that it is a much more mature type of misanthropy. There is a smirky nihilism at work in these films. The brothers are growing up and it seems they aren't coming to many positive conclusions about the nature of man. This is where A Serious Man may reveal itself to be them coming out the other side of this spiritual funk but I'm not so sure yet. I do know that the Coens are a creative force to watch closely at the moment.
No Country For Old Men is without a doubt one of the best films of the decade. It marked a return to form for some of my favourite filmmakers and perfectly translated one of the most fatalistic authors working today to the screen with a comic sensibility that is sublime.