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Six Possible Undergraduate Essay Questions on No Country For Old Men
by Brenda Cromb
1. Consider No Country For Old Men as a Western. Traditional accounts of the Western take the wilderness-civilization opposition as an American foundational myth; discuss how the Coen Brothers revise the archetypical Western, in which civilization is seen as a necessary step in the creation of American society but is typically coupled with nostalgia for a loss of traditional masculinity and old-fashioned honor and moral clarity.
Contrast the film’s anti-climactic ending with Sam Peckinpah’s famous blaze-of-glory sendoff for the aging Western anti-heroes in The Wild Bunch, another film about aging disguised as a Western.
Be sure to consider the villain Anton Chirgurh’s (Javier Bardem) air gun in light of the Sheriff’s story about how they used to slaughter cattle by hand, but now the technology has changed.
2. Compare and contrast No Country For Old Men and Psycho. Some common points to consider: the central use of ill-gotten money as a “McGuffin”; the role of randomness in the fates of apparent protagonists; the centrality of hotels as refuges of anonymity and ultimate sites of violence; and the impotence of representatives of the law.
Compare the psychologist’s monologue in Hitchcock that “explains” Norman Bates and the lack of background information the Coens provide about Chirgurh; what does this withheld explanation tell us about the way the Coens are presenting evil?
3. Discuss the film as an entry in a new “cinema of quality.” This would be centered on references to historically neglected genres (especially the Western and film noir), and which use generic references in order to make grand statements about American society (cf. The Departed, L.A. Confidential).
Consider both the positive and negative aspects of this filmmaking trend. Some positives: the use of familiar iconography makes your message comprehensible, and the films become richer when read as being in dialogue with other classic works. On negatives: the danger of allowing an outdated frame to determine what stories – and whose stories – are being told.
So, even if unlike Peckinpah you don’t have your old men go out in a blaze of glory, you are still speaking the language of the genre, in which the subjects of important stories are old white men.
4. Examine sound design in No Country For Old Men. Consider the role of the constantly changing sounds of wind and traffic that play under virtually every scene in the film and how those sounds contribute to the sense of an indifferent world. Why did the Coen brothers eschew a traditional score?
Take into account the moments where music does appear in the story world, ie. when a bleeding Moss wakes to be serenaded by a mariachi band – who promptly shut up when they see his injuries. If this is no country for old men, what does it mean that it’s also no country for music?
5. Consider the film in light of the Vietnam War and the current war in Iraq. The film is set in 1980 and many of the characters, including Moss (Josh Brolin), who finds the drug money, and Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), a hired gun trying to resolve the dispute, are identified as veterans.
“I Went Hunting” – Alasdair Roberts (mp3)
The darkness of the past war hangs over No Country For Old Men the same way the first Gulf War stays in the background of The Big Lebowski. Consider whether the filmmakers’ invocation of Vietnam can be considered in light of the current clusterfuck the US government has pushed its soldiers into, and the film’s thematic emphasis on random violence and unfathomable evil, and more than that, the difficulties of actually being the one who survives all those things.
That’s the question Tommy Lee Jones’ character seems to ask himself: how do you eat your breakfast when you’ve seen your peers slaughtered with an air gun?
“So Happy Together” — The Turtles (mp3)
“Loneliness is Worse” — Veruca Salt (mp3)
PREVIOUSLY ON THIS RECORDING
Harris and a haircut.
Alex and the death of masculinity.
Head back to last year.
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