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Coen country is tricky terrain

'No Country for Old Men's' less-than-killer ending leaves many viewers perplexed.

January 11, 2008|Glenn Kenny | Special to The Times

"You know how this is gonna turn out, don't you?"

"No."

"I think you do."

So goes an exchange, almost an hour and a half into "No Country for Old Men," between murderous tracker Anton Chigurh and affable Llewelyn Moss, his prey. They're the two main characters -- at least until the film's final half-hour.

What goes on in that last quarter makes the picture -- which is well on its way to becoming the top-grossing film from moviemaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen -- one of the most controversial thrillers to hit movie theaters in some time. Not, perhaps, since the "what-is-that-astronaut-doing-in-a-Louis-XIV-bedroom" finale of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" has a movie's ending so provoked and polarized viewers.

Still, "No Country" continues to gain in box-office sales (it's grossed roughly $45 million) and awards (it would appear to be a shoo-in for a score of Oscar nominations). However, one potential hurdle in that respect is convincing whichever skeptical parties still out there that the ending is a plus, not a minus.

To address what makes the ending "challenging" will involve getting into it a bit, so readers who haven't seen the film yet might want to set the paper down. The picture was adapted scrupulously -- although the Coens do some compressing and add one particularly provocative bit of cinematic sleight-of-hand -- from the 2005 Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name.

The story's villain, Chigurh (indelibly portrayed by Javier Bardem), is a mysterious, merciless killer tracking down a couple of million dollars in drug-deal money. He's a wraith with an odd haircut, an odd way of killing (it involves a variant of a cattle gun) and an odd way of determining his victims (it frequently requires a coin toss).

Moss (an extremely appealing Josh Brolin) is a likable latter-day cowboy who stumbles upon the satchel containing that money and ill-advisedly engages the formidable Chigurh in a game of cat-and-mouse. The rules of genre moviemaking would seem to dictate that this story end with a showdown between the assassin and the good-guy underdog.

But the Coens' film, like the novel from which the film's adapted, follows the rules only so far; the showdown never happens. Instead, the story's emphasis shifts, concentrating on Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones, in a magisterial turn), who's been trailing Moss and Chigurh from a distance. It's Bell's voice that is first heard at the movie's opening, talking about a crime he can't begin to "reckon."

Bell is a good man and a good cop, but he eventually decides to withdraw from the frightening chaos wrought by the Chigurhs and Mosses of the world, and the movie's very last scene depicts Bell, now retired, recounting a haunting dream to his wife (Tess Harper).

Because "No Country" contains some action/suspense sequences that honor not just the best of Hitchcock but the best of latter-day violent blockbusters (Chigurh's seeming indomitability sometimes brings to mind the first "Terminator" film), this contemplative and seemingly abrupt wrap-up inspires certain action-movie mavens to scratch their heads and shout obscenities at the screen -- and on the Internet, where so many movie conversations now take place. ("It's because there's no music," "No Country" producer Scott Rudin notes. "The norm in scenes like this is to provide some sort of emotional cue with the music.")

The message boards about the film on Yahoo are teeming with subject lines such as "The critics are on crack!" and observations such as "Yeah a lot of people get killed but the acting is terrible."

But, truth to tell, even more putatively thoughtful viewers have been thrown off by the road less traveled "No Country" takes. In the Nov. 26, 2007, issue of the New Yorker, writer-director Nora Ephron contributed a humorous piece in which a couple ponder, among other things, the fate of Brolin's Moss. Where he ends up, as it happens, is not unambiguous at all; it's just revealed in a way that's totally counter to audience expectations.

Ephron's piece, along with a good deal of other online speculation about the movie's ending -- including a couple of posts by this writer at the Premiere.com website -- is being collected at the movie's own official web- site, www.nocountryforoldmen- themovie.com, under the heading "Notes on the Ending."

"One of the things my partners and I decided early on it was to not try and dance around it," Rudin says. "To say, yes, there is this ending, it's this extraordinary thing, we love it, it requires work on the part of the audience, it's challenging, it's complicated, it's ambiguous. And that decision was a big part of how we tried to make it work for audiences."

The more one examines the differing parts of "No Country" -- starting from its title, which is from the Yeats poem "Sailing to Byzantium" -- the more its seemingly off-kilter ending makes sense, revealing itself as the only possible ending for the picture.

Not only that, but the more it relates to other Coen brothers' movies and to sources the Coens have cited as influences such as the Dashiell Hammett novel "The Glass Key" -- an uncredited inspiration for the Coens' "Miller's Crossing" -- which also ends with the recounting of a dream.

Mere moments before his own date with destiny, Moss tells a young lady who's chatting him up that he's just got an eye out "for what's coming." After Moss has met his fate, and Ed Tom Bell is grappling with a case that he could not, or would not, close, a trusted relative tells him: "You can't stop what's comin'. It ain't all waitin' on you. That's vanity."

The dream Bell recounts in the film's denouement is a place where safety and warmth are assured; that world, this movie understands, is not the one we're living in today. The actual nature of the killer Chigurh is . . . open to question. As is much else.

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