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I Sez: No Country for The Good Doctor

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 26, 2008

Mad Spoiler Alert

“You know, Lee, most of these movies that win a lot of Oscars, I can’t stand. They’re all safe, geriatric, coffee-table dogshit, y’know?…All those assholes make are unwatchable movies from unreadable books. Mad Max, that’s a movie. The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, THAT’S a movie. Rio Bravo, THAT’S a movie.” -Clarence Worley, True Romance

I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot since No Country for Old Men took home the Best Picture Oscar last night. As I’ve now stated all too forcefully on this blog now, I did not expect No Country for Old Men or its partner-in-crime, There Will Be Blood, to take home the Best Picture. Because for at least the last decade-and-a-half, safe, geriatric, coffee-table dogshit movies made from unreadable books seem to be about all that’s been winning. And now, this marks two years in a row (The Departed for those of you with less long-term Oscar memory) where movies that Clarence would almost surely have whole-heartedly endorsed have taken home top honors, marking the longest such streak since Silence of the Lambs and Unforgiven won in back-to-back years in ’91 and ’92. Pretty remarkable, if you ask me.

But when I think about it, past Oscar transgressions weren’t the only reason why I predicted No Country to be upset by Juno, or even Atonement. Partly, it’s because even though NCFOM winning is one of the coolest things to happen to the Oscars in ages, and even though it might’ve been my favorite movie of those nominated (only Blood gives it competition), I still kind of wanted it to lose. In a weird way, No Country losing would’ve validated the nagging feeling of frustration and dissatisfaction that No Country left me with–the kind of feeling that no Best Picture winner as strange and untraditional as No Country should really leave me with.

“There wasn’t a single thing about that movie I didn’t love,” one of my friends exclaimed about No Country while discussing it during the Oscars last night. I smiled and nodded, even murmured a half-hearted agreement, even though it wasn’t really the truth. Because I wanted it to be the truth. I wanted it so, so very badly to be the truth. Moreover, because it fucking should have been the truth. Because it seems like everyone loves No Country unreservedly. Because the Academy, the same group of know-nothing know-it-alls that elected Dances With Wolves over Goodfellas and Gladiator over Traffic, were bowled over enough by it to overlook that it was a cynical, understated and extremely violent thriller and not some poncey bullshit that happened a long-ass time ago. Because there seems like no good reason that I shouldn’t love it unreservedly.

And because, for the first 90 minutes of the movie, I did love it unreservedly. Those first 90 minutes were basically the Coens and company putting on a clinic, so to speak–displaying such unbelievable verve in every filmmaking category that counts that it could almost be interpreted as showing off. It was THE perfect thriller, an unbelievable mixture of technical innovation, fascinating storytelling and good old-fashioned suspense. Those 90 minutes ensure Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin as inductees in the all-time badass canon, cement the Coens as being among the most relevant filmmakers of their generation once more, and prove once-and-for-all that it doesn’t matter what accent she’s doing, there’s not an actress on the planet more heartmeltingly adorable than Kelly McDonald. Those 90 minutes ensure that No Country For Old Men is a stone classic, no matter what.

And then…the turn. You remember the first time you saw Mulholland Drive? It’s kind of hard to remember now, for me at least, but the first time I was watching that movie, I was totally with it for about as long as I was with No Country, and I absolutely loved it, the coolest, freakiest and hottest neo-noir I had maybe ever seen. And then there was the scene with the box–you know the one–and everything I thought I knew about the movie changed. Technically, my eyes and ears followed the rest of the movie to its fruition, but mentally, I checked out of the movie at the beginning of the turn. Because I was pissed off. Because I liked that movie–the movie of the first 90 or so minutes, that is–so unbelievably much, and I was furious that David Lynch had robbed me of the opportunity to see how it would’ve ended. I didn’t care nearly as much how this new, unrecognizable movie ended.

Now, a few years later, a whole bunch more late-night viewings, a whole lot of theory reading, and I understand. I get why the movie–the whole movie–ended the way it did, I think it’s as brilliant as anything Lynch has ever done, and I don’t begrudge the turn anymore. So I’m willing to acknowledge that with time, with viewings, with perspective, I might feel similarly about No Country‘s detour. But what infuriates me is the way that no one seems willing to discuss it, that no one even seems to care. Suggest that maybe No Country would have been better served with a more conventional ending, and you may as well be suggesting that Raging Bull should’ve ended with Jake LaMotta hiring Burgess Meredith, losing 50 pounds and fighting his way back to the top to the strains of Bill Conti.

But let’s compare it to another movie from Clarence’s That’s a Movie canon. Let’s say you’re watching The Good, The Bad & the Ugly. You’re about up to the scene where Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach blow up the bridge to sabotage the fighting soldiers on both sides so they can get across unfettered and get to the treasure buried in the nearby graveyard. Only, say this time, before Clint and Eli get there, Lee Van Cleef sneaks up on Eli when he’s alone and kills him. And then, off-screen, we hear Clint getting winged by some enemy fire, and then we see his bloody corpse. Meanwhile, turns out there’s been a nosy sheriff that’s been following all three the entire time, only he’s more interested in eating breakfast and telling metaphorical stories than actually doing any effective detective work, and he never even encounters any of the three main players. Lee Van Cleef slinks back to his dark hole wherever, and the treasure stays buried forever.

OK, so it’s not the same thing. OK, so there’s a deeper meaning to the way the Coens’ movie ended, one more concerned with matters of death and fate and inevitability than with who gets away with the sack with the dollar sign on it. OK, so there’s actually a fairly respected source text that the Coens are referring to here, and they couldn’t very well shape out a completely brand-new, crowd-pleasing ending without fans, critics and anyone else who knows enoughto give a damn screaming bloody murder. I’m willing to concede all of these things. I’m even willing to admit that it makes me an essentially shallow film watcher to demand such instant gratification, especially from filmmakers I claim to love as much as the Coen brothers.

But just for a second, step forward to the monitor. Look me straight in the eyes. And tell me the truth–weren’t you just a little bit disappointed that the movie ended the way it did? Wasn’t there a part of you that was absolutely heartbroken that you didn’t get to see some super-tense Mexican Standoff between Bardem, Brolin and Harrelson, or at least some grand-scale shootout between the first two to determine, as Brolin would put it, the Last Man Standing? Weren’t you a tiny bit flustered when Bardem didn’t even have it out with Tommy Lee Jones at the end? Fuck the Oscars, No Country had the potential to be, straight up, the best thriller maybe ever made, a popcorn classic for the ages, a thinking man’s T2. Are you actually going to tell me you weren’t even slightly angry when that dream was shot full of holes with Brolin?

Well, then, mister, you’re a better movie watcher than I. And hey, maybe you’re part of the contingent that actually gave a great movie the Best Picture Oscar for only the second or third time this decade, so more power to you. But I’m sorry, I guess I’m just not ready to say OK. I’m not ready to be a part of this world yet.

6 Responses to “I Sez: No Country for The Good Doctor”

  1. If I was in the same room as you, Andrew, I could look you right in the eyes and tell you: The turn is my favourite part of this movie. I hadn’t read the book, so it shocked me, but it also makes the movie roughly 8x as powerful as it would have been otherwise. And I don’t wish they’d had some kind of knock-down fight (the fact that I don’t know who I think would win is actually something I enjoy) – really, during the ending after Moss dies my overwhelming thought is “oh god please don’t kill off Tommy Lee Jones.”

  2. Jason L said

    No, you’re absolutely right, if you’re a sane human being your stomach had to plummet as soon as you saw Josh Brolin shot up in that motel, partially because it was so sudden and unexpected, and also because you wanted to see him put a hole in Javier’s head. I mean, obviously this movie isn’t about who gets away with the money or anything — a second viewing really shows how nobody gives a fuck about the money throughout most of the running time. I don’t begrudge the Coens for veering toward a philosophical structure for the film’s last third, but I will say this: without Tommy Lee Jones, the ending probably would have been a complete disaster. This is the actor’s strongest work to date, in my opinion the strongest acting in the film, and he makes the dialogue-driven ending count. You could say that the ending is as out of place here as the scene with the Chinese guy (for the life of me, I can’t remember the character’s name, and I’m too lazy to look it up) was in “Fargo”, and you’d be right. But that closing shot of Jones looking at his wife, his eyes speaking to us more clearly than any of his philosophical ramblings, made it worth it to me. You talked about “There Will Be Blood”‘s singular vision in your last entry; I hope in time you see that the Coens’ decision to stop the action entirely and subtly express some mature shit was incredibly brave and arguably visionary.

    But yeah, a shoot-out woulda kick some serious ass too.

  3. Victor said

    Tommy Lee Jones. Worst sheriff ever.
    Woody Harrelson. Worst hitman ever.
    And what the fuck was Barry Corbin doing there in a shack in the middle of nowhere?

  4. Justin said

    Actually there was a huge blogger debate for awhile about the ending. It was the polarizing event of the end of the year. But sorry dude, the ending, especially Javi’s almost death and Tommy’s conversation with the old sheriff, was undoubtedly my favorite film decision since Bruce Campbell in Bubba Ho-Tep.

  5. Mitchell Stirling said

    I’m in the same camp as Ian M and co. I’m glad that the film took the turn it did and it taking that turn burned into my head longer than the scenes with Brolin and Bardem taking shots at each other from behind cars. (Though that was obviously cool.)

    Speaking of Mrs Dougie Payne of Travis, you should try and see State of Play before the US version (with Crowe, McAdams, Mirren and Bateman but now not Pitt or Norton) is made. Great story, great acting (John Simm, David Morrissey, James McAvoy and Bill Nighy join Kelly) and just great.

  6. […] cool. It’s an accepted practice, and I’m probably as guilty of it as anyone. Observe my recent article on No Country for Old Men, in which I paint myself as a movie crit maverick of sorts for suggesting […]

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