It's de rigeur to cheer on the Coens as they "buck the Hollywood traditions" (like good storytelling). But my initial reaction was that the movie left the audience hanging in the last scene. I have not read the novel yet, but perhaps there was additional thematic insight to be gleaned there. Perhaps I am old school, or just plain old, but I was really hoping for a theme that was not so cleverly disguised that it cannot even be recognized by NYT book critics.
Don't get me wrong- I do not want a movie to hit me over the head with allegory or jingoism. But I would like to be able to suss out a theme from a story, any story, no matter in what medium it is told.
I watched Rashomon last night, the 1950 Kurosawa gem. The acting was over the top, the score was cartoonish, the subtitle translations were blunt, (though the direction and cinematography hold up very well), and yet, the movie's theme was clear enough to provoke discussion and thought. Rashomon left me feeling satisfied, like the story circle had been completed. Earlier Coen Brothers films also feel this way, like Raising Arizona and O Brother. It's not like they don't know how to deliver a theme; they just sometimes choose not to.
Am I just a slave to the Hollywood formula? Aristotle doesn't think so:
[Writers should create a] character between these two extremes - that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. [W]hile reproducing the distinctive form of the original, make a likeness which is true to life and yet more beautiful.
I loved, loved, loved the cinematography, dialog, and acting in No Country. What I didn't like was that (a) I didn't know whose story it was; which is to say, that it suffered from a point-of-view problem, and (b) the story's theme was obscured. Why is (b) important? Well, without a theme, then I'm just watching plot elements- character studies, pithy dialog, pretty shots, random acts of violence. Hell, I can do that by turning on the evening news (in HD, no less). I want a story, dammit, and a good one.
I decided to reach back to the source, poet William Butler Yeats, for some help.
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.[...]Once out of nature I shall never takeMy bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
Yeats' theme is clear, yet subtle, and not bludgeoning:
People, particularly elders, are not as revered by the young as the things they make; so, then, how do we best leave our legacy?
As an artist, I fully appreciate Yeats' sentiment. As for the Coen Brothers' movie, they succeeded in getting me to talk about it. So maybe that is their point.