Before I start I feel there are some issues I have with the artistry of No Country for Old Men that I find necessary to address before delving into the substance of this review. These are issues which are less about a single movie and more about the purpose of cinema in general. While adaptations of literature are always going to be both controversial and rampant throughout the mainstream, the reasoning behind the adapting often proves itself elusive. When Robert Altman made The Long Goodbye he wasn't concerned with capturing the essence of the novel, but rather transforming its story into a more contemporary and identifiable narrative which utilized the strengths of the cinema to their full potential. On the other side of the spectrum, we have Joel and Ethan Coen who are content (as is their right) to simply adapt a great work of literature, to see its characters made real by the dimensions of film. These can be treacherous waters to navigate, especially when the directors hold the source material in such regard that they blind themselves to the differences between mediums.
And this is where I believe the Coens failed in adapting No Country for Old Men. Literature as an art is a much more functional medium for the illustration of abstract concepts, symbolism and exposition. Small portions of sentences can pass by unnoticed by the majority of its readership, only to have those same portions become of greater importance later in the narrative. The reason for this technique's effectiveness lies in the readers ability to reread passages over and over and over in order to discern their importance. However, film is a much more literal artform and relies on the usage of physical objects, characters and actions to represent these abstract concepts. As dialogue is the only way of conveying the subtle nuances of a character's interior motivations and characterization, exposition can encroach upon didacticism if not used with great care and economy. What No Country for Old Men does well it does by sparing us the usual obvious exposition out of respect for the audience's intelligence; what it does not do well involves the absence of narrative conclusion in the hopes that this will equate with artistry. Sadly, it does not.
Watching No Country for Old Men again reminded me of just what got under my skin the first time around, namely, the sudden disrespect for the audience's time and emotional investment. I may recognize the importance of Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) as the core of the thematic material, this significance is not mirrored by the appropriate screentime. Instead, the Coens place Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) at the forefront. These two characters are inseparable from the onset of the film's central drama, yet the Coens feel it necessary to echo the source material's dismissal of a conclusion for Llewelyn's conflict. While this presumably works in the novel, it's delivery in the film is an awkward and retroactively reductive affair. What the mainstream press steadfastly believes is a skewing of convention in favor of narrative demands is, in actuality, the misplaced conclusion to the emotional arc of the protagonist. This does not give the film added depth, but instead reveals its shallow nature.
The conclusion of Llewelyn's story could have been effective were it not included in the narrative, it's ambiguous absence could have been construed as necessity of plot redefined, yet because its result is depicted in the film we are left to wonder exactly why the Coens felt the need not to include it. There is no satisfactory answer, and we are left unfulfilled, forced to let our emotional investment in the film dwindle and dissipate. We finish the film only to see how the central antagonist will complete his journey, and to see it displayed in full detail is little more than salt in the wound.
That said, the technical prowess of the creators of this film is astounding. The direction is brilliantly understated, provocative and unconventional, drawing on the standards of the Western genre to heap tension on (a tension left unreleased, as I mentioned). The acting is superb, Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones in particular leave no stone unturned in their wonderfully drawn performances. Javier Bardem does a good job of saying little and acting unsurprised, but I have a feeling this will be one of the very few films of note that Bardem will participate in, unless he decides to fulfill his father's (the underrated and ultimately fascinating director Juan Antonio Bardem) wishes and help to establish a national cinema in Spain.
The 3-Disc treatment the film receives in this edition is more than adequate for the casual viewer, and is essential for anyone who was left satisfied by the 2008 Academy Awards. Featurettes on the making of No Country for Old Men abound, including an amusing one by Josh Brolin. Also included are Q&A sessions, filmed appearances by the actors, interviews, and TV shows, all of which contribute to the establishing of No Country for Old Men as a modern-day classic. The third disc is populated by a digital copy of the film, so if you are one of those 'on-the-go' type people who like to watch movies on game machines and tiny screens then you should get this, if only to cut yourself with.