Critical praise rained on the Coen brothers in 2008 for their work in No Country for Old Men. From creating an unforgettable antagonist to redefining a genre, No Country for Old Men left its impression on audiences and critics alike. But I think one of the biggest impression the film left can also be considered a huge gamble. Many passable movies today have the tendency to spoon-feed exposition through either uninspired dialog (Star Wars: Episode I) or plot devices (action scenes in the Transformers series).
No Country for Old Men takes the gamble of being a smart movie. Not smart in the sense that you need an impressive IQ or understand quantum physics to appreciate the movie. But smart in the sense that the movie is layered and meaning is found through attention to detail. The Coen brothers find success with No Country for Old Men by whole heartily trusting the audience.
In the days of john Wayne and Clint Eastwood, bad guys and good guys were clear and defined, good guys would chase the bad guys ultimately ending in a huge firefight. The Coen brothers banked on movie goers understanding these fundamentals of a genre despite spiking in popularity in the 60s. But of course, nothing along these lines happens in No Country for Old Men. Llewelyn (‘good guy’) steals a briefcase of cash, the bad guy gets away and the sheriff retires in defeat.
Essentially the Coen brothers took this familiarity with the western genre and subverted it into something brand new. The protagonist Llewelyn, for example, is killed off screen and without build up. And in the end the villainous Chigurh avoids jail time and gets away. The Coen brothers shock viewers by going against their knowledge of heroic and villainous western movie figures. This subversion engages viewers into a new genre.
Many call it a “neo-western”; a genre where good guys are bad and bad guys are rewarded. The Coen brothers crated a new and entertaining genre out of the faith they had for the audience. But this subversion would not be possible if No Country for Old Men did not have that initial trust with the audience.
The Coen brother’s trust in the audience also reveals characterization throughout the movie. A perfect example is the case of Anton Chigurh and his boots. Chigurh removes his boots before confronting Llewelyn in their first encounter. At first I thought he removed his boots in order to keep his element of surprise, but a later scene would add the real significance to his actions.
Soon after Chigurh blasts Caron Wells into oblivion he makes a subtle but revealing move. Before the pool of blood can reach him though Chigurh lifts his boots up and away the blood. Here the Coen brothers characterize Chigurh with these two simple scenes. Despite his unflinching violence, Chigurh is one to take care of his boots. This is another great example of the movie trusting the audience to put one and one together. The Coen brothers allow viewers to synthesize characters on their own.
Instead of using dialog for character exposition, the Coen brothers place small scenes for audience to piece together. The set up was risky. What if, WHOOSH, the scenes flew past the audience? Fortunately, one only needs to reflect on the impression Anton Chigurh left in the minds of audiences everywhere.
No Country for Old Men is not an easy watching experience. It demands viewers to put together the puzzle pieces and conceptualize meaning on their own. I greatly appreciate a movie that takes the time to trust an audience. Meaning is always more powerful whenever I create it myself. On the other hand, little debate and discussion come from spoon-fed meaning. No Country for Old Men makes viewers “work” for meaning.
Ending No Country for Old Men with Ed’s dream sequence is very fitting. Without the context of the entire movie, Ed explaining his dream is just another old man rambling on. But the Coen brothers give us enough information throughout the movie to come to our own conclusions of his personal struggles. Trusting the audience paid off in No Country for Old Men and has me creating meaning till this day.