I feel funny about not having written about this movie. I am something of a Coen brothers fan. Blood Simple is one of the greatest first-films ever (therefore in the same club as Citizen Kane), and Fargo is, rather obviously, a masterpiece.
Even with this movie, I go way back. I bought the Cormack McCarthy book on which it is based while it was only available in hardbound (something I never do with books I read for entertainment -- I'm too cheap!). I started reading it at Borders and couldn't put the damn thing down. I read it compulsively to the end. But once I had read it, I was not glad I had. I'm still not completely sure why I read it.
I guess I felt the same way about the movie, which is as faithful to the book as it could possibly be.
The movie is superbly well-made in every way. My problem is with the content. Both film and book are extremely dark. They have a superabundance of the noir in film noir. That darkness is really a feature of the world depicted in the noir work: it consists in the fact that the world the characters must navigate is unaccommodating to human wishes, that it tends to be evil or unjust.
In general I love this genre. There are Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett. Then there's the riveting James M. Cain, who was obviously the inspiration for the Coens' The Man Who Wasn't There. And the horrific Jim Thomson, whose The Killer Inside Me is one of the most disturbing books I've read.
Why do we, or at least I, tend to like such works? For me, I think the answer is that the difficulty of the obstacles that the characters must overcome makes their struggles more interesting -- in several different ways. More suspenseful, for one thing. It also enhances their achievement, and that, for me is the main thing. The worst the world in what the hero succeeds, the more heroic that success becomes. The superb noir author Dan Mainwaring (Geoffrey Homes) once told an interviewer that The Fountainhead was a very dark book: the architect-hero blows up his own building. That's dark! But it is very closely linked to the character's heroic stature.
The trouble with "No Country" is that both book and movie push this darkness all the way into the territory of nihilism. The villain, Chigurh, is a heartless and sometimes utterly pointless killer -- yet no attempt is made to explain why he is the way he is. As his name suggests, he's just a blood-sucking arachnid. He does this because such is his nature. You get the feeling that what needs to be explained is not why someone is so evil, but why the good ever succeeds.
"You can't stop what's coming," one of the characters says. What is coming is some kind of tidal wave of moral sewage, rolling over us. "It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners" is a line that, I think, occurs bot in the book and the movie. Civilization is about to collapse, to be replaced by a Hobbesian jungle in which life is nasty, brutish, and short. The good sheriff, Tom Bell, retires [SPOILER ALERT!! PLOT DETAILS GIVEN AWAY IN WHAT FOLLOWS!] without ever catching the bad guy, who literally walks away at the end, a free man. Bell figures that the country will soon belong to guys like him (hence the title, I guess).
The trouble is, once the evil of the noir world becomes so total and insurmountable, that ruins the artistic point of it, at least for me. Once you realize that survival is impossible, suspense dies, replaced by its creepy cousin, dread. Suspense and dread, very different things!
Also, if the world is so evil that the hero cannot succeed, it no longer magnifies achievement, but prevents it. The young protagonist of the "No Country" film is killed, off-screen, while we are paying attention to someone else, as if to say, "what did you think was going to happen?"
Ultimately, I find McCarthy's nihilism to be not very gripping. His work is so self-consciously literary that it comes off, for me, as a mere aesthetic effect. Or maybe something of a macho pose. In a perhaps less offensive way, the movie strikes me the same way. Its unrelenting grimness is an artistic effect, very well brought off, but no more than that.