The Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men has emerged as the most controversial film of 2007, most of that controversy arising from the way the film concludes. No Country is a western, albeit a noir one, and as in most westerns there is a clearly defined Good Guy (Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff) and Bad Guy (Javier Bardem’s assassin). We expect that as in most classic westerns – from Stagecoach to Once Upon a Time in the West – there will be a climactic shoot-out or some other kind of confrontation in which the Bad Guy, or maybe both the Good Guy and the Bad Guy, are killed.
That does not happen. Jones’ sheriff never confronts Bardem’s assassin directly. Neither man dies. (Allegorically speaking, neither Good nor Evil can be destroyed, only crippled.) Instead, the film concludes with Jones’ recitation of a dream.
For those of us who like the film, its ending is beautiful and appropriate. (As a former editor, I said to myself, “they should cut to black now,” and they did.) For those who HATE the film, its ending is the final insult. The Coen Brothers have unforgivably broken the rules.
Audiences were similarly enraged in 1960 when Alfred Hitchcock killed off his leading lady played by Janet Leigh approximately one third of the way into Psycho. Hitchcock was accused of being a sadist, a cynic, or a nihilist who cared about nothing but form – almost exactly the same charges one hears from the detractors of the Coen Brothers today. Apparently it’s OK for a filmmaker to bend the rules from time to time, but to break them entirely risks the moviegoers’ equivalent of capital punishment.
A comparable breaking of western genre rules occurs in Sergio Corbucci’s 1968 film, The Great Silence (Il Grande silenzio). Like the Coen Brothers, Corbucci plays with genre rules throughout his film. Most of The Great Silence takes place in the snow, a setting that is unusual, though not unheard of in a western. (See, for example, Andre De Toth’s Day of the Outlaw (1959) and – later – Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971).) There is a clearly defined Good Guy (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and clearly defined Bad Guy (the eminently hissable Klaus Kinski, above). And unlike No Country, The Great Silence does conclude with the anticipated shootout.
However, the shootout does not go the way *the rules* would lead us to expect. Good Guy Trintignant squares off against Bad Guy Kinski, but before either man draws his weapon one of Kinski’s riflemen guns down Trintignant from a window – exactly as Kinski apparently planned all along. Kinski and his gang ride off into the sunset leaving Trintignant’s corpse in the street. The ending is a shocker, even if one is informed beforehand (as I was) of what is going to occur. Corbucci’s explanation? He wanted to be realistic. These are bad guys. Why wouldn’t bad guys cheat at a shootout?
The ending of The Great Silence may be a bummer, but later one admires Corbucci for having the cojones to stick to his personal vision. No Country‘s ending creates quite a different effect. I was thrilled by the audacity and formal accomplishment of the film, while at the same time feeling a certain melancholic nostalgia for a world that no longer exists – if it ever did.