Because from day one, No Country for Old Men has struck me as overly cynical and even contemptuous of its audience. There Will Be Blood is cynical, too, but it also has moments in which its cynical veneer threatens to crack.
Take, for instance, the scene between Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) and Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), where Daniel is on his knees before Eli's congregation, confessing, "I've abandoned my child! I've abandoned my boy!" Director Paul Thomas Anderson milks some humor from the scene, but it's also heartbreakingly sincere. For a moment, as Daniel's voice catches on the word "boy," we see him as just a man, not a businessman, and even a little bit as a father, hard as that is to imagine.
This is just one example, though. There's also that moment prior to this, where he sends his son away, refusing to look at the train as it pulls out of the station. And then there are the tears he sheds later on after killing the man he'd believed to be his brother. As envisioned by Anderson and portrayed by Day-Lewis, Daniel Plainview is a force to be reckoned with, but also a fragile human being.
Now, consider No Country for Old Men.
Let me first say that I can't fault the Coens for anything on a formal level. I love the movie's slightly over-saturated cinematography, and its careful attention to minute sounds, like the whisper of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) removing his socks after a shootout, or the way we can hear the unmanned telephone ringing downstairs when Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) calls the front desk at the Hotel Eagle. And of course, there's Bardem's excellent performance. You won't hear any complaints from me there.
As great as these aspects are, though, I've never been able to look at the two principal characters as enormously complex. They've always struck me more as archetypes. Archetypes can be powerful, don't get me wrong, but they rarely have complex motivations. They're more like symbols that exist to carry out a function, or in this case, figures designed to carry the plot from one point to another.
Why, then, does Llewelyn steal the drug money? Because he needs the cash, but also because that's what happens in the book. The better question might be, why doesn't he ever give up on the money? After a certain point, any sane man would have to admit, this just ain't worth it. So what are his motivations for dragging that blessed suitcase with him long after he knows what he stands to lose? Beats me, but it rings false.
And why does Chigurh go after him? Well, it's his job, partly, but it would also seem that he just loves killing. He's symbolic of evil, of course, not to mention fate, destiny, and what-have-you. But he's also just doing what he does in the book, too.
The character I have the hardest time with, though, is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who seems like he does more complaining than anything else. In Cormac McCarthy's book, Bell is more active. He seems genuinely intent on finding both Llewelyn and Chigurh before matters get worse. In the movie, though, he seems to have a great love of sitting. He still does police work, but the tone feels dramatically different. It's like he's just going through the motions. That's part of what gives the movie an extra-cynical edge. Sure, evil things happen and there's not much we can do about it--but if we never try, then what should we expect? Bell, as brought to life by the Coens and Jones, doesn't seem all that interested in doing anything but sipping coffee and reading the newspaper.
Even more bothersome than Bell, though, is the way the Coens chose to resolve Llewelyn's story. In both the book and the movie, his death occurs "offscreen," but in the movie it occurs without warning. Our only foreshadowing is a seemingly arbitrary conversation between Llewelyn and a woman hanging out by the pool of the motel he's staying at. During their brief encounter, she asks him what he's looking for. He says, "Just lookin' for what's comin'." The woman responds, "Yeah, no one ever sees that." And in the next scene, he's dead.
Compare this with the book, where McCarthy spends seventeen pages on a conversation between Llewelyn and a hitchhiker he's picked up. Their conversation adds depth to Llewelyn's character and brings his arc to a satisfying close. We feel how firmly committed he is to his fate. The scene the Coens give us leaves us hanging, expecting more. Thematically, this might work, but it also makes his death that much more random, and hence, more meaningless. His arc doesn't feel complete, and so all that time we've spent with him feels like it was for nothing.
That leads me to feel that the Coens don't quite respect us. Killing him offscreen is fine. Denying us a final shootout between him and Chigurh is fine. But I can't stand the feeling that our time with him was a waste, and that he's learned nothing about himself during his journey. It makes him feel that much flatter, that much more like a pawn. The Coens would rather have us feel the cynicism of McCarthy's story than some sense of purpose or resolution--that would imply that life means something.
But what about the ending? Doesn't that point toward hope?
It does, but only in the feeblest sense. More than anything, it establishes a gnostic dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual. In this life, there is only cruelty. If there is hope, it's in the next life. But this is a falsehood. While life is painful, there is also beauty now and hope now. No Country for Old Men would have us believe that there is only hope later, as there's no meeting point at all between the hope in Bell's dream and the misery of "real life." They're like parallel lines that run into eternity without intersecting. Hope never impinges on the present. It's, well, a dream.
Think I've gotten it all wrong? By all means, let me know you've perspective in the comments. I am just one man, after all.