ALLIGATORS IN A HELICOPTER

a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Sunday, February 10, 2008

No Country For Old Men -- SPOILERS

So I finally saw NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN today, though I went in having heard that there was a lot of debate about the ending.

**** SPOILERS ****

I hated the ending. It turned what was a great movie into an only-pretty-good one.

It's not the ambiguity that bothers me. Ambiguity is fine, and I wasn't bothered by the fact that we don't learn the fate of the wife, or the bad guy goes unpunished.

What bothered me is that this is a movie about a guy who finds a pile of money, decides to try to run with it, is chased by some truly bad men, and not only has to stay alive, but realizes that the main guy after him is such a psychopath that this is unlikely.

And we're with Josh Brolin's character. The whole Mexico sequence has some great, tense stuff. We can't wait to see what will happen next, what step he can possible take, to slip out of the noose he has wrapped himself in. And if he can't get out of the noose (and that's ultimately the case), well then that works.

But then there's that jump, and suddenly Tommy Lee Jones is driving up to the aftermath of the shooting, and Josh Brolin is dead, and what-the-hell?

Yeah, it's definitely a different way to tell the story, and in the right spot in the right movie a sequence like this can work well, because we can fill in the blanks in most crime scenes; we've seen Javier Bardem's character, and we can make some pretty good guesses about how it went down.

But it's not satisfying. Because if Josh Brolin's character reaches the point where he now truly has to fight for his life, and makes a decision that dooms him (because there WAS a decision that dooms him, whether it was walking into an ambush, or otherwise being unprepared when Javier Bardem shows up), I want to see that decision. I want to see it played out.

And the way the Coen brothers handled it, I just felt ripped off.

(How does the book handle it, does anyone know? Is there something different in the screenplay version?)

The other big problem is that, at that point, suddenly the tale is effectively over. Josh Brolin is dead, and Javier Bardem apparently has the money... and yet the movie rattles along for another 15-20 minutes of Tommy Lee Jones musing, and Javier Bardem going to see the wife, and Javier Bardem's car accident.

And don't get me wrong: there's some good writing in these scenes, and they are well put together. But the movie's over, and indeed nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in these scenes to spin the movie in any new direction. All the air has gone out of the movie, and when it was over, you can feel the deflation in the audience.

And it's not a good deflation.

Still, it's a good movie, and it really had me most of the way. It's the kind of movie that, while I was watching it, made me want to sit in front of a computer, and write something wonderful.

Now I just want to write that missing sequence.

48 Comments:

At 5:27 PM, Blogger Chris Hansen said...

FWIW, my understanding is that Javier Bardem did NOT kill Josh Brolin's character; he was killed by the (gang of Mexicans?) who were also chasing the money. Also, I didn't read the book, but I have read that his death is handled in EXACTLY the same way in the book -- killed by the same people, and it happens "off screen," as it were. So, the Coens are essentially staying true to the storytelling style of the book, changing things up to surprise the audience and keep them on their feet.

 
At 6:18 PM, Anonymous Casey said...

Yeah, what chris says above, Brolin does NOT meet his fate at the hands of Bardem's character. There's been tons of ink spilled over the ending, and your complaint, which is really about the end of the second act. My question is, why do you consider Brolin's character the protagonist? I think that's clearly Jones, and the movie tells his story, not Brolin's.

 
At 6:31 PM, Blogger Joshua said...

It's pretty faithful to the book.

And it's clear that it's the Mexican gang that figures out where Brolin is, and Churgur figures out, after Brolin's gone, where the money is.

The Cohen's were very faithful to the book, and myself I was more than satisfied . . . after the original shock, it hit me that anything could happen. And it was exciting.

 
At 6:36 PM, Blogger E.C. Henry said...

Glad to read you post on this movie, Scott. I LOVED this movie, though I do note your trepidations, and agree with them -- to point.

You're right on; it would have been nice for this movie to end on a stronger note. How about ending it a little earlier, right after Bardem visits Brolin's wife? He just walks out the house, no more Tommy Lee Jones nonsence, no Bardem post killing accident (though I didn't think that was all that bad)

I LOVED this show because the BB's where SO strong in it. Everytime those two squared off I was gripping my arm rest. THAT is a rare event for me.

Also the Coen's really managed to capture some really gorgeous Texas scenery. Oddly, "Atonement" tries real hard in its own right to sell its drab scenery of capturing the English on the French front in World War II, but I thought "No Country for Old Men" captured the esence of its stories surroundings much more efficently AND effectively. Did you like the long scenery shot that occur before Brollin stumbles on the remains of the drug dealers' shoot-out, Scott?

No film is perfect, but "No Country for Old Men" did enough in my book to make it my choice for the Oscar. Now you're WAY more of pro than me. What's your pick for the Oscar?

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

 
At 7:07 PM, Blogger Nicklaus Louis said...

Scott,

**SPOILERS**

I agree with you a thousand percent.

In the book, Moss dies at the hands of the Mexicans and not Chigurh. The girl in the pool (the one who asks Moss if he wants to party) is actually a teen who he picks up on the road (it's hinted that Moss might have been succumbing to temptation with her in his room, this would explain why he was caught off guard by the cartel members who seemed a bit behind the curve when it comes to the smarts of both Moss and Chigurh).

The book does almost exactly what the movie does -- we find out Moss is dead rather than see (or read) it happening, although the book does go into a bit more detail as to how the events occurred.

One thing the final scenes in the film did that was not in the book is give Carla Jean Moss a very brave moment when she makes Chigurh choose her fate rather than calling the flipped coin. In the book, she calls it and dies.

casey,

The reason Moss is considered the protagonist is because he is the protagonist. Ed Tom is telling the story, sure. But he does nothing to drive the story (the protagonist's job). It is clear that Moss is the protagonist and Chigurh is the antagonist from early on.

I would not recommend the book or the screenplay to any aspiring writers who don't know the rules of story already. They have their virtues -- pacing, well drawn characters, and dialogue (BTW, most of the dialogue is lifted straight from the book) -- but the Coens (and Cormac McCarthy) definitely broke a lot of rules for the simple sake of breaking rules -- which they can do cause everyone loves 'em.

 
At 7:23 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

I don't think it's Jones' story at all. He drops out of the tale for long stretches, and is otherwise peripheral, other than being guy-who-tells-us-about-the-theme.

And I guess the idea is supposed to be that Bardem finds the money hidden in the duct again, though I have no idea why Brolin would have been dumb enough to hide it there a second time.

 
At 8:42 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

Brolin also had a lot of luck on his side. Remember, he was almost killed by that dog that was swimming after him (a great scene).

I also felt a little odd about the ending, but there was some foreshadowing when a character (I forget who) was talking about things coming out of nowhere, and bam - Brolin is dead, and then (later) Bardem is in the car crash (great scene, too).

I think the main problem is we were following Brolin pretty much the whole time, and cared about what happened to the dumb lug and his wife, and for the story to shift like it did fucked with our emotions. It was a cold move, even if it does unfold like that in the book.

So, should it win Best Pic? Not in my book, although it was one of my faves of the year. If it wins or not, it still isn't as good as Fargo.

 
At 9:39 PM, Blogger kristen said...

I loved this movie, though I agree with you, Scott - it would be nice to see Moss in his final moments instead of having the POV switch to Jones. I don't mind the last few "tacked on" scenes at all - in fact, I minded them less on 2nd viewing.

I think this is their best film since "Blood Simple". I say, screw all the movies in between. : )

 
At 9:56 PM, Blogger P. Alderson said...

While I share your disappointment in not seeing Brolin's final confrontation, I thought the death of Brolin's wife was well portrayed.

After killing the Harrelson character, Bardem walks outside and checks his shoes for blood which was earlier running across the carpet. This action is repeated as he leaves the house where Brolin's wife was staying.

 
At 10:12 PM, Blogger Matt said...

The people I saw the film with loved the ending. No deflating going on. I think Jones was absolutely the protagonist. This was his story all the way, even though it may not have seemed like it on the first viewing.

Brilliant movie. Wouldn't change a frame.

 
At 1:56 AM, Anonymous lady muck said...

Danny made a similar point recently on his blog, talking about theme. Worth checking out. Sorry, don't know how to link: http://dannystack.blogspot.com/2008/01/theme.html

 
At 2:44 AM, Blogger wcmartell said...

Obligatory scene.

 
At 8:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

**spoiler **
FYI the wife (Carla Jean) dies. If you notice when Chigurh (sp?) leaves her place he wipes off his shoes. He is wiping off blood.

He hates blood on his feet.

When he kills the first set of Mexicans (in the motel) he gets blood on his socks and then sits down on the bed and takes them off. This wasn't very obvious in the film, but I know it because I read the script afterwards and it is explicitly mentioned in there.

He also puts his feet up on the bed to avoid the blood spilling out of Carson Wells in a later scene.

I liked the ending because the film wasn't about just action. It was about good and evil, about what you do when there is so much evil and madness that you can't stand up to it. Do you just shrug? Do you walk off? The whole theme of the film is evident in Tommy Lee's voice over in the opening:

"You can say it's my job to fight it but I don't know what it is anymore. More than that, I don't want to know. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He would have to say, OK, I'll be a part of this world"

 
At 10:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Obligatory scene all the way...

At the end of the second act, Moss has the choice to give Chigurh the money and save his wife. Instead he tells Chigurh the he'll make him his little project.

Then Moss gets killed by some random Mexican dudes.

That's like playing Beethoven's 9th and ending on dadada DUMMMM dadada...

Imagine Die Hard ending with Bruce Willis strapping on the gun to save his wife from Gruber, and then getting killed by the FBI guys in the helicopter. And for the last twenty minutes, we follow the black officer (Powell?) as he decides to just go home and have a long conversation with his wife about how crazy the world has become with all that violence and greed...

Also, the internal logic of the chase was also pretty thin. Chigurh always kept popping up in all the right places no matter how much sense it made, much like all those B-movie monsters who always happen to be waiting in the closet, no matter which house the protagonist chooses to hide in.

 
At 10:56 AM, Blogger Matt said...

Comparing this film to Die Hard is beyond silly.

Look, it's fine if you didn't like it, but obviously it all fits together and makes perfect sense to a large portion of the audience that love the ending.

 
At 11:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why is the comparison to Die Hard silly? The fundamental story forces at work are pretty similar: in both stories, the second act takes the protagonist to a point where he realizes he has to confront the bad guy personally in order to save his wife.

In Die Hard, the conflict is played out in a way that gives the audience the obligatory scene (showdown between McLane and Gruber) and a sense of emotional satisfaction, while in No Country it just stops.

Look at it another way: Structurally, No Country is basically a monster movie. Moss invites the monster into his life by committing the sin of greed (i.e. taking the suitcase with the money.) The monster hunts him throughout the second act, and every attempt to escape gets Moss into further trouble. Then, by the end of the second act, Moss realizes that he can't run any longer and has to face the antagonist.

This is basically every horror / action movie out there. It's Alien, Aliens, Jaws, Die Hard, Scream...

The only difference is that No Country chose to mix up the ending by taking out the protagonist before the third act in order to serve the larger point that, in a world where violence has become raw and commonplace as to make no sense, the sanest choice is to not engage in this struggle at all (which is the choice Tommy Lee Jones takes.)

It's a legitimate artistic choice, but it comes at a cost.

 
At 12:25 PM, Blogger George said...

I agree 100%, Scotty-Boy! And yet I still think it was a good movie. Perhaps that's the major achievement here.

At the end when Tommy Lee Jones starts talking about his dream with his father I was instantly spun off into my own subconscious, remembering an intense dream I had about "you know who." I missed everything Tommy said and had to turn to Alex to ask what happened. The funny thing is the same happened to the other Scott and a few other people I know.

 
At 1:27 PM, Blogger Matt said...

Nope, it doesn't come at any cost. Not everybody is going to like it, but obviously plenty of people do. Plus, although I haven't read the book, I'm told that they follow the source material pretty dang closely.

The comparison to Die Hard is silly to me, obviously not to you. Die Hard is a straight up action flick. A mainstream, appeal to the masses, movie that has to deliver on all of the expected story points in order for it to be considered successful. And it is, it's an awesome movie.

No Country is not a straight up action flick. It's a Coen Bros. movie. Anybody that knows anything about the Coen Bros. knows that they don't like to do anything the expected or accepted way.

That's why, to me, the comparison is silly.

 
At 1:57 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

I'm all for the idea of doing something that isn't accepted or expected.

Though the expected part isn't really the point here -- I would have been happy with the Mexicans-killing-him ending if we'd seen it play out in compelling, fairly complete fashion.

Accepted is an interesting word though; it's sort of a cheat, a way to say that because mainstream audiences don't get it, it must be interesting.

And there are times when it may be. A lot of audiences didn't like the ending of There Will be Blood, but I think it works.

But here, it just didn't work for me, or a large segment of the audience, for what are some strong, tangible reasons. And you can spin that any way you want, but the point is that there's a great third act that this movie could have had, that still would have made all the same points they wanted to make, that would have worked on a storytelling level as well, and made it a great movie.

But it's not there on the screen.

 
At 2:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't get too hung up on Die Hard. The underlying story setup in terms of a character who tries to run away from danger until he realizes the only way out is to confront the antagonist head-on is the same in many movies, across many genres.

Besides - because Die Hard is the prototypical action story, it serves as a great contrast to illustrate the different approach that was taken in No Country, which is at the other end of the action-genre spectrum.

Also, Die Hard was obviously used a bit tongue in cheek - as was Beethoven's 9th symphony in the preceding paragraph, by the way.

And I still maintain that the artistic choice of killing off the protagonist right as he makes the choice to confront his pursuer is dramaturgically jarring. Especially since he's killed by characters who are peripheral to everything that happens before and after that point in the story.

While this serves a larger philosophical point about the pervasiveness and inevitability of violence, it also breaks the story's dramatic momentum and deflates the tension without any sense of resolution.

And that lack of tension and resolution in a story where everything seemed to build up to a final decisive confrontation is something audiences generally find unsatisfying. So the choice to tell a story that way does indeed come at a cost to the emotional involvement of the audience.

To put it in simpler terms: when Moss died, I felt cheated out of a third act showdown that I had been lead to expect. And because the film didn't really offer anything else that came close to my expectations in terms of visceral power and emotional appeal, I left the theater feeling jibbed - as did a lot of other people I talked to.

While this whole debate may sound a bit petty by now, I think there actually is a larger point that is important to keep in mind: There is no single "best" story out there. Every story is a prototype with its own needs in terms of structure, tone, character, etc. But in the process of finding the right combination, it's important to realize that there are often trade-offs involved. And to be an effective writer, it helps to understand how the different elements that are involved in those trade-offs affect each other.

And as far as trade-offs go, killing your protagonist right before the third act, without any sense of resolution, and by abruptly severing an established line of action, is about as big as you can go.

So don't analyze the issue in terms of "anybody that knows anything about the Coen Bros. knows that they don't like to do anything the expected or accepted way." Instead, think about story, and how different choices lead to different audience experiences. Because even though the Coens like to do things their way, their stories are still made up of all the elements found in traditional drama - just with a different emphasis.

 
At 3:38 PM, Blogger Matt said...

Scott,

I understand that you see it that way, and I have no problem agreeing that many others feel the same way.

But there are a lot of people, myself included, that thinks it works entirely the way it was filmed. I've actually had this debate with other people, and I've noticed a lot of people get angry and argue that WE can't possibly have liked that ending. We had to be let down by it.

That's bull. It's not for everybody, but it works on every level for many others.

 
At 5:33 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Matt -- what's interesting here is that the movie works for you because you see Tommy Lee Jones as the protagonist. And through that prism, absolutely it works to omit the scene; we don't need to see Josh Brolin die.

So I think where we really disagree is not about the scene, but about the protagonist.

I think there's a way to tell this story in which Jones is the protagonist. But this movie isn't it. He provides an interesting angle, and is sort of the thematic voice, but you could cut him completely from the film, and it would barely change the narrative.

The way the Coen brothers have decided to tell the first three quarters of the story, Josh Brolin is unquestionably the protagonist. And that's why I don't think what happens to him works; it's abrupt offscreen end to him being the protagonist, with no set up or explanation.

 
At 8:38 PM, Blogger Matt said...

The first time I saw it I did see Brolin as the protagonist, naturally, and still loved everything about the ending.

The second time I watched it I had it in mind that Jones was the protagonist, and liked it even more.

So, I disagree.

 
At 9:45 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

Here's a better comparison - At the end of Return Of The Jedi, pretend it goes like this -

We HEAR Luke is killed in the light saber battle, and then follow Wedge for the rest of the movie.

 
At 10:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Then Moss gets killed by some random Mexican dudes."

That's the whole point. Death doesn't wait for the "appropriate" time. This movie puts its themes first, and that's what elevates it above the standard studio bullshit.

Of course, you could never get this movie made like it was if you were just Joe Screenwriter.

 
At 10:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Why is the comparison to Die Hard silly? The fundamental story forces at work are pretty similar."

Who the fuck are you, Robert McKee? This movie is BETTER for abandoning the traditional showdown. Quit reading so many "this is how it's supposed to go..." screenwriting books. This is not a Hollywood film. Stop treating it like one.

 
At 11:13 PM, Blogger Matt said...

"Here's a better comparison - At the end of Return Of The Jedi, pretend it goes like this -

We HEAR Luke is killed in the light saber battle, and then follow Wedge for the rest of the movie."

Patrick, I respect the crap out of you, but that's a bad comparison. The two films you are comparing are nothing alike.

I just don't see why people have a problem with those of us that love the ending. I don't care that so many dislike it. But I get this feeling that others are angry and annoyed that I do like it.

Weird.

 
At 12:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One more note to Matt:

Nobody here is trying to diss people who liked the movie. Everybody is entitled to their own opinion, and when it comes to movies there is always a certain subjective element to the way we experience them. That's the whole fun of working in this medium.

But when you go from "I like the movie" to "It was objectively flawless", then you're no longer presenting an opinion. Instead, you are making a universal statement about the movie that invalidates everybody else's experience if it's different from yours.

 
At 12:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the other anonymous poster(s) who thought No Country was flawless: You may not agree with my analysis of No Country in terms of how it uses common structural elements differently from other movies, but I don't think it warrants such a venomous response.

It's not an issue of Coen's brother's vs. Hollywood bullshit - rather, it's an issue of one kind of story vs. another. You can place this movie outside the Hollywood system, but you can't place it outside of dramaturgical principles.

It's like saying that a hundred-pound weight is heavier than a five-pound weight, and therefore does not obey the standard laws of gravity.

The Coen's certainly wanted to create a movie that elicits different emotions in the audience than your average action flick. And in order to achieve that effect, they chose to use the standard elements of storytelling in a different way - but they still had to use those elements (protagonist, antagonist, theme, tone, etc.)

And while the resulting movie succeeded flawlessly in some people's opinion, it also fell short in other's. And there's a good reason for that - because the "rules" of drama don't precede the way humans commonly experience drama, instead, they are derived from our normal reaction to story.

Stories don't have protagonists you empathize with because of Robert McKeey, but because that's the way people like to experience their stories. They don't have rising action that culminates in a final showdown because of Syd Field, but because that's they way people naturally want to experience a character's struggle against obstacles.

And as far as box office goes (which is a pretty valid measure of popular appeal), No Country's "flawless" story has been seen by less people than Fred Claus, Saw IV, or Surf's Up.

If your goal is to become a selling screenwriter, you need to at least have a general idea of what elements you are working with when crafting a story, and what effect they will have on people. And simply brushing off a legitimate discussion of a movie's structural flaws because you personally liked it, or because it was done by a certain director, does not get you there.

It's not about being dogmatic, but about knowing the medium in which you are working.

 
At 1:13 AM, Blogger Matt said...

"But when you go from "I like the movie" to "It was objectively flawless", then you're no longer presenting an opinion. "

Where did I say it was objectively flawless? I think I've said several times that I have no problem with those that didn't like it. So please do your best to back this statement up. Also, do you not have any movies that you find to be flawless, and you'll rave about? If you do, then you're guilty of the same thing, although there really is nothing to be guilty of.

"Instead, you are making a universal statement about the movie that invalidates everybody else's experience if it's different from yours.""

Again, on at least a couple of occassions I noted that I respect the opinion that differs from mine. Maybe you have me confused with somebody else. I didn't attempt to invalidate any opinions. I stated mine, hell, I had to defend mine because I keep getting told I shouldn't think it's a good ending.

 
At 1:24 AM, Blogger Matt said...

Technically this wasn't directed at me, but it kinda was...

"And as far as box office goes (which is a pretty valid measure of popular appeal), No Country's "flawless" story has been seen by less people than Fred Claus, Saw IV, or Surf's Up."

Wow. Just, wow. Who really gives a crap about box office? If you want to set out to write the next Fred Claus, be my guest. In a hundred years nobody will know your name. The Coen name will be around for a long, long time. The masses are asses.

You know, you put flawless in quotes. As if to say it isn't flawless because it's been outgrossed by such utter crap.

REally? Really? I can't believe you're serious. So, Wild Hogs is an excellent film and Punch Drunk Love just sucks? So Titanic is one of the greatest films of all time and LA Confidential pretty much reeks? Transformers equals greatness and Zodiac was terrible because it didn't set the box office on fire?


"If your goal is to become a selling screenwriter, you need to at least have a general idea of what elements you are working with when crafting a story, and what effect they will have on people."

Thanks Teach. You're only assuming we don't because we enjoyed the ending to this terrific film.

" And simply brushing off a legitimate discussion of a movie's structural flaws because you personally liked it, or because it was done by a certain director, does not get you there."

So, you want us to admit there were flaws, because you believe there were flaws? You may not admit to it, but that's exactly what you're saying.

Don't presume to know my history or the history of other posters. You have no idea what films I'm critical of (other than the nonsense mentioned in this post) and what films I love. Just because you dislike the structure and ending of this movie does not mean we have to agree with you on any level. I understand why you don't like it, I just stongly disagree with you.

Understood?

One more thing, I have to assume from this post that you're a "selling screenwriter". Care to post your credits for all to see?

 
At 5:51 AM, Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

Whoa! Why am I getting attacked? I wasn't actually SERIOUS about comparing No Country For Old Men & Return of the Jedi, or comparing Tommy Lee Jones and Wedge (!).

Also, to Anonymous, or do you just go by Assbag, have you read my script? No, you haven't. Here's the thing:

Superbad rip? Not even close. First, it was written over a year ago (1st draft anyways) long before any of us knew about Super.

2nd. It is closer to an old John Hughes movie actually. I wouldn't try to rip off Superbad or anything Apatow has done - he does it best, so why even try?

Also, I agree with you that it is much more (and far superior) than some standard thriller. I didn't LOVE the ending, but I was okay with it. Most of the movie had my on the edge of my seat.

 
At 5:58 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

So I usually do very little comment moderation here, but I deleted a couple that were particularly childish and insulting.

Intelligent debate is fine, but let's not stoop to personal attacks. Particularly if you are going to post Anonymously (while anyone who posts under the anonymous label should sign some sort of name, just to sort you all out).

 
At 6:13 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

I have to agree, by the way, that the box-office-as-quality is fallacy. You can't compare independent film to mass-market entertainmment on that level.

Having said that, though --

Yeah, we're trying to write movies that are going to get made, and yeah, the reason movies generally do get made is because someone thinks they'll make money.

But what No Country For Old Men really proves is that good movies (and it is a good movie, despite how I feel about the ending) can make money, even if they aren't flawless.

Because by the end of its theatrical run, No Country For Old Men (currently at $58 million plus) will make MORE money than Saw IV (which made $63 million) or Fred Claus (which made $72 million, and cost a hell of a lot more than No Country For Old Men did).

And who could have ever predicted that happening?

When sharp, well-written movies like No Country For Old Men and Juno (which will pass the $120 million mark this week) can come out and redefine the traditional idea of what a movie has to be to make a lot of money, that's a good thing for us as writers.

 
At 6:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone who read both the book and saw the movie, this seemed to be a classic case of an unsuccessful adaptation. The book is about Bell and the way this case affected him personally. That can be done in the book because books can focus on the characters' internal experiences. It didn't matter that you didn't see Moss die because the important thing was the effect of Moss' death on Bell.

Since movies are visual, it's easy for the police case itself to take center stage. That reduced Bell to making a bunch of voice overs, which isn't compelling in a movie.

In other words, the main character of this story is not terribly active, which can fly in a novel that's primarily a character study, but it didn't work so well on screen.

Just my 2 cents ;)

 
At 8:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To Matt:

Of course you're not flat out saying that this movie was movie "objectively, universally flawless", but at the same time you disagree that the unique way that the Coen's chose to tell their story did not come at any cost to audience enjoyment (at least for some.)

If it didn't come at any cost, how come some people enjoyed it less than other movies that follow a more traditional story trajectory? And how would that statement not seem to devalue the experience of others who did not like the ending?

As far as box office appeal goes, it's obviously not a measure of artistic quality. But again, for a movie that purportedly makes bold artistic choices that come at no cost to audience enjoyment, the attendance has not really supported that assessment.

If this movie had a compelling artistic vision, while retaining all the pluses of a regular action movie in terms of audience appeal (which is basically what you're saying with "there are no costs"), then why aren't audiences flocking to it in greater numbers?

Titanic was panned by many before it came out, and it had a so-so start at theaters. But there was something to it that kept people coming back in greater and greater numbers. What was it that pulled people into its story? What gave them a feeling of excitement and emotional resonance?

And how is No Country different in its effect on people? Again, I'm not talking about something outside of special effects, explosions, and all the other surface elements. I'm referring strictly to the emotional response of the audience, which for the most part has to do with characters and their relationships throughout the story.

While all this sounds like I'm dissing No Country, I'm actually not. No Country does succeed on the terms it sets out for itself - but those terms place it in a very specific part of the movie universe that will appeal only to some.

And understanding what exactly it is about No Country that makes it both unique and special, but also limited in its emotional appeal to large portions of the audience is crucial for anybody who wants to become an effective storyteller (which usually leads to becoming a working screenwriter :o)

 
At 8:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ooops... that's supposed to be "I AM talking about something outside of special effects..." in the third to last paragraph.

 
At 9:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And one more for Matt... :o)

"And simply brushing off a legitimate discussion of a movie's structural flaws because you personally liked it, or because it was done by a certain director, does not get you there."

Yeah, you're right on that one. It was awkwardly worded - but I couldn't edit the post after it went online.

Despite the way it may sound, I'm not necessarily saying that the movie was flawed per se. It wanted to present its story from a certain point of view, with a distinct tone, and a unique ending. In order to make those work, it had to make a number of artistic choices.

Those choices worked to enhance and distinguish some aspects of the story, but at the same time they precluded the Coens from making other, more traditional choices in other aspects of the narrative.

My guess is that they probably weren't even really interested in those traditional choices, but even more importantly, they couldn't have made them AND kept the unique character of their piece.

For example, audiences like to identify with the protagonist and his quest throughout the story. But in this movie, the protagonist (Moss) dies before the third act. This creates a jarring effect on the audience, which by that point has become invested in that character. And in order to not make that effect so jarring that it throws almost everybody out of the story, the story needed a protagonist who was a bit morally ambiguous and without many of the usual emotional handles that the audience uses to build sympathy.

Now if the Coens were just going for the "jarring" effect, wouldn't it have been even stronger if Moss's character were more sympathetic and relateable?

But what that really would have done would be to totally piss off the audience.

By keeping Moss's character at arm's length and not letting the audience invest themselves in him as much as they it's customary in most action movies, the Coens gave themselves the option to pull out the rug from underneath people without totally alienating them and turning them against the movie.

But again, it's a trade-off. You don't get "jarring" in the context of this movie without also lessening the audience's emotional bond with your protagonist.

While those kinds of trade-offs aren't "flaws" per se, they do involve choices that are at the core of what every screenwriter has to work with when crafting a story.

And just saying the story was "flawless" and ending any discussion of the movie's structure right there is to miss out on most of the fun of discussing movies.

 
At 11:06 AM, Blogger Matt said...

anonymous--

I'm just going to go ahead and ignore your comments from now on. You're attempting to twist my words and the meaning of the word "opinion".

If you think that by me having a strong opinion that this film, and the ending is flawless, I somehow devalue your own opinion, , that's your problem.

I don't think I can state any more clearly that I have no problem with those that didn't like the ending.

You can't get at me for liking the ending, so you're trying to attack that opinion in and of itself.

For the record, your claims are some of the strangest I've ever heard. It's not my responsbility to take into account the thoughts and feelings of others when deciding how much I like a film. I'm sorry that you do feel that way.

Okay, guess I didn't quite ignore you.

Patrick,

Hope you know I wasn't personally attacking you, Dude. It was late and maybe I missed the fact that you were joking, but I wasn't attacking you in the slightest.

 
At 11:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Matt,

We've both made our arguments to the best of our abilities.

Unfortunately, the one thing that I was interested most did not happen - a discussion of the movie at hand, and how/why the artistic choices the Coens made worked for some but not for others.

Engaging in that kind of discussion has nothing to do with personally attacking you. It's simply what a message board on a screenwriting site is meant to be for.

If this is not the place to critically examine the very conscious and intelligent choices the Coens have made in creating No Country, then what is?

 
At 12:35 PM, Blogger Matt said...

Anonymous-

My email is on my profile if you want to have further discussion.

 
At 12:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gotcha.

Let's shake hands and go the e-mail route.

 
At 1:03 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

It's interesting about Jones' character being the main character of the book, and how hard that was to capture for the movie because it was so internal. It certainly explains all the rambling near-monologues.

I don't think they really pulled off his being the main character in the movie, but yeah, that's just my opinion.

But in discussing the idea of the movie not going in expected "Hollywood" directions, I think the problem is that, until that moment, the movie is a really, really good version of what is otherwise a fairly formulaic tale -- good guy on the run, bad guys after him. They do some interesting things within the mold, but they don't break the mold, until that moment.

Which is why I found it jarring -- because for the first 90 minutes of the movie, it's not that kind of watch-out-we-can-do-crazy-things-with-the-story kind of tale. And then suddenly it is.

And in the right movies, that can work. But I think here they stick with a standard storyline for so long that by the time they decide to really shake it up, it's too late for tricks like that, particularly this trick denies the audience a payoff that they've really be lured into wanting.

And you can argue that that moment is great, that denying the audience a payoff is some sort of brilliant screenwriting moment. And if it worked for you, great.

For me, not so much.

 
At 1:09 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

It does beg an interesting question though --

When you are writing a screenplay, and you reach a moment like this where you have several choices -- one of which can continue the narrative and take it in a direction that will satisfy MOST audiences, the other which will do something unexpected and different, and satisfy SOME audiences, which do you pick?

I think the answer is probably "the one that makes the story work best", but then you're back to the question "work best for who?"

Clearly, the Coen Brothers fit the "SOME audiences" category, and made the movie they wanted to make (I assume, and hope).

But when M. Night Shyamalan made Lady In The Water, he also made the movie he wanted to make. That doesn't mean it still isn't terrible.

 
At 2:53 PM, Anonymous JoeNYC said...

This is my analysis of NCFOM that I posted on another site shortly after the movie came out.

WARNING SPOILERS!



When it comes to a Coen Brothers' film, you know they ain't gonna follow the conventional rules and expectations. This is a given and also risky. Most of the time it works for them, but when it doesn't work it could hurt instead of enhance the movie.

I was fine with the unhappy ending of the hero Moss (Brolin) not making it. Being killed. It was poignant to the themes of the movie. Same with the open-ended resolution where evil (Chigurh; played by Bardem) walks away. Not being apprehended and punished, or killed.

The problem that I had is with the way they structured the ending. It was distracting and unsatisfying.

As Sheriff Bell heads toward the hotel he (we) hear distant gunfire: shot gun shots and machine-gun fire.

As Bell arrives: an off road pickup truck with a rack of roof-lights roars out of the lot with Mexicans hoping on and firing their machine-guns.

Bell spots Moss lying dead in his hotel doorway.

Considering all that came before, this ending was lame.

Sure, not showing the climax on screen was the same way in the book, though, the book did tell what happened through witnesses talking to the local police, which then relayed that info to Bell, but nevertheless, movies are a visual medium.

A lot of times filmmakers add and/or leave things out from the novel to enhance the movie experience for filmgoers.

If the filmmakers at least made the off screen climax work, where it'd be satisfying, I wouldn't have a problem with this aspect of structure, but it wasn't set up properly.

In fact, it was just -- BAM!

Ah, sorry, all those instinctual survival scenes we showed you that Moss had when battling Chigurh... that was just something we wanted to fool you with so you wouldn't predict what was coming: the minor characters, the Mexicans, sneak up on Moss in broad daylight with a loud and distinct off road vehicle with a rack of roof-lights, machine-guns blazing.

Hah, hah, hah. Bet you didn't see that one coming?

Ah, no, I didn't. That doesn't mean it was satisfying.

The complete opposite was set upped, where it's destined that these three main characters (Moss, Bell and Chigurh) are on a course for a showdown.

Yes, an audience expects the three-act structure that includes a climax, but this doesn't mean a filmmaker has to follow this convention, which some haven't done and that's fine as long as it works.

Moss is introduced as an experienced hunter. Makes not only for a good ironic situation where he becomes the hunted, but also demonstrates his ability to go toe to toe with a viscous, experienced killer and survive. Also to add to his abilities it's revealed that he's a combat veteran: two tours in Nam.

The inciting incident happens about 10 minutes in when Moss decides to take the moneybag with 2+ million.

Now it becomes a cat and mouse chase movie.

At about 90 minutes in, the end of act two happens that gives this story it's forward momentum into act three: Chigurh tells Moss he's going up to Odessa to kill his wife. He makes an offer to Moss. If he lays the moneybag at his feet, he'll spare his wife, but not him.

Moss says, "I've decided to make you a special project of mine. You ain't goin to have to look for me at all."

This exchange and everything that came before is why the majority of the audience that I seen it with and I were unsatisfied with the ending.

I mean there are encounters between Moss and a killer that's considered a ghost, where in the darkness all Moss hears is silence with the exception of a creak in the wood floors to prepare and get away without being killed and wounding the untouchable ghost, but in broad daylight a truck full of Mexicans, not even a main character but the minor characters, are gonna sneak up on him and kill him.

In my opinion, Moss' death was lame and unimaginative, thus my unsatisfaction with its ending.

Another thing that bothered me was when Bell went back to the room where Moss had been killed (the local police chief mentioned how he was amazed how Chigurh went back to an earlier crime scene, which got Bell thinking) he notices the cylinder lock to the door has been blown out. He stares at the hole.

There's a shot of Chigurh standing behind the door, holding a rifle, staring at the cylinder lock.

Bell enters. Now Bell's an experienced officer. He looks behind the door. Bell checks the bathroom and its small window. The window latch is in the lock position. No sign of Chigurh.

How did he get away with Bell right outside the door, entering? There was a shot of an opened vent with a dime laying there, presumably Chigurh went back for the money, but the vent shown was too small for anyone to climb through and what was shown about Chigurh he wasn't one to run away from a fight.

I know it's been mentioned that Chigurh is ghost-like, but this scene was ridiculous. This was a cheap trick for suspense by the filmmakers, playing with the audience's emotions like the sheriff and Chigurh are gonna have their showdown. I felt toyed with and didn't like it.

(Since my analysis the Coen bros addressed a couple of the controversial scenes in an interview. This scene and the car crash scene. The motel room scene the Coens stated that they were going for Bell having a feeling that Chigurh was there, but the time line of his presence was earlier. They said they were going for ambiguity intentionally.)

This was more than ambiguity. If this was their intention, then they failed to achieve that -- miserably.

They had a shot of Chigurh looking down at Bell's reflection on the blown out lock cylinder as Bell hesitantly stood at the motel door's entrance. How's that ambiguous? Even in the script it mentions Bell's reflection.

Another scene I thought was a waste and not organic to the story that was told on screen was Chigurh's car accident.

In the book, there was more to the car accident. One of the boys found a gun in the car and someone uses it months later in a robbery, where the ballistics' matches it to the gun that killed Moss' wife.

Now, Bell gets a description of his ghost, Chigurh, when the gun is traced back to the boy that helped Chigurh in the accident.

(The Coens had an explanation for this scene too, which you can read about in one of the recent Creative Screenwriting Magazines.)

About Chigurh and Moss' wife at the end: This, the death, was also played off screen. This was okay because it was set up with earlier scenes of Chigurh offering to toss a coin and checking his boots for blood. So, you know how it, Chigurh and Moss' wife's encounter, went down from those visuals.

The pacing at the end dragged with Bell philosophizing to Ellis about the theme (nature of evil) to bookend the opening narration about the theme.

And then there was a scene with Bell talking to his wife about a dream he had, which I interpreted as: Bell dreaming about when it was his time (death) his father would be waiting on ahead with a welcoming, warm fire in all that dark and cold. Fire representing life.

There were some good stuff in these scenes, but it could've been tighten for better pacing. Maybe combined them to one scene, Ellis' scene.

There were plot holes that annoyed me also. Here are a few:

Moss is shown as an experienced hunter, but he's in the Texas desert without a jug of water, either with him or in his truck.

Does this make sense?

You don't just drive out to the desert, shoot an Antelope and drive back home. It takes time, patience and tracking. And once you bag your prey you gotta labor and prepare it for travel.

An easy fix would've been as he was setting up for the shot; he accidentally kicked the jug over, where at the time he didn't notice and it all drained out.

Lying in bed Moss gets a guilty conscious about leaving the Mexican without any water.

He's feeling guilty about not bringing the Mexican some water?

The Mexican has blood all over his mid-section, bleeding to death. If Moss were feeling guilty, more logical would've been for Moss to make an anonymous phone call to get the Mexican not only water but medical help.

Was it really necessary for Moss to deliver it himself? Any evidence of him and his truck being there were gone.

To get around this, the attackers in the off road trucks would've had to come onto Moss then. Not when he went back with the water.

Another one was the Mexican gang, waiting in Moss' hotel room. They found Moss because of the transponder.

When Chigurh attack them he asked, how'd you find it? Later, at the office building, when he offed the businessman he asked the other guy there, why'd the businessman gave the Mexicans a receiver? He was told the businessman thought the more people looking for it the better to find it and get it back.

So, if the Mexicans found the room with the receiver, why couldn't they track the beeps toward the vent where the money was hidden?

Even though I was disappointed how the filmmakers structured the ending and the numerous plot holes, I still would recommend the film.

Chigurh was a strong antagonist and the first two acts were great.

I just can't agree that it's a perfect story that rates four stars like a lot of critics and some writers on message boards are saying.

I give it three stars.

 
At 5:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Me again... ;O)

One movie the unexpected killing of Moss reminds me off is Alien 3. Sure, it happens at the start of the story, but it's the same general principle - the movie kills off characters that the audience had an emotional investment in (Hicks and Newt, via Aliens), without having their deaths serve any larger purpose.

I had the same discussions back then with some friends that I had with Matt on this board (no stab at Matt here.) They insisted that the movie was great because it wasn't pandering to the masses and traded Hollywood sappiness for raw, edgy emotion that remained true to the core of what a horror movie should be about.

But my contention is that the majority of viewers will only be fine with the unexpected loss of a character if it serves a larger purpose. If they just die without any sense of redemption or larger philosophical gain, then the audience will usually feel cheated.

No Country edges right up against that point of discomfort by removing Moss from the story via an act of violence that comes from left field and is unconnected to the main dramatic forces that have been playing out between Moss and Chigurh throughout the second act.

The only reason it doesn't seem completely nihilistic is because Tommy Lee Jones's character learns a lesson from Moss's fate and chooses not to pursue the matter further. But even that reaction is ultimately not the most emotionally satisfying. It's a valid response, but one that has little dramatic energy - which is jarring when juxtaposed to all the momentum that the story had built up right until Moss's unexpected death.

I think the key with endings is to give the audience a little bit of everything.

If the entire story just ties up in a nice little bow without any deeper sense of loss or regret along the way, then the ending will probably feel too sappy (aka "Hollywood".)

But it's perhaps not a good idea to just reflexively go against "Hollywood" endings by ending story's on a singularly downbeat note.

A good example is Casablanca: Rick loses the girl of his dreams, but at the same time, he has saved the free world. Plus the movie does not end with him feeling sad and dejected - it ends with "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship..."

 
At 11:08 AM, Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

Logline: An aging lawman nearly gets involved in the hunt for a brutal killer before retirng.

 
At 7:30 PM, Anonymous patrick said...

just watched no country for old men, it's unassumingly unconventional yet (thankfully) never over-the-top. the Coen bros. deserve their Oscars; well done indeed.

 

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