Contains spoilers for No Country for Old Men
This is from Frank Cottrell Boyce’s thirteen golden screenwriting rules published in The Guardian on June 30th:
No one leaves the cinema saying: I loved that character arc. They come out saying: I loved the swordfight, or the bit with the bloated cow, or whatever. The manuals emphasise the flow of a narrative, but it's better to think of a film as a suite of sequences. That's where the pleasure is.
I would actually go a little further than this and state that a single image can occasionally have a lasting effect, and be eminently memorable to boot. No Country for Old Men is a case in point. The pleasures of this film are almost entirely visual (which is a bit of a given seeing as much of the narrative unfolds without dialogue or even music): scuff marks on a linoleum floor, the aftermath of one of Chigurh’s brutal murders; the slow seep of blood across a motel floor; Chigurh checking the underside of his boots after killing Moss’s wife; all beautifully written and executed visual moments, the undoubted signifiers of (overused word alert) a masterpiece.
If only the story mechanics were as well considered.
I’d been warned by a friend that the ending of the film was a little disappointing, and that it didn’t really make much sense. Er, hello? Everything made perfect sense to me, so I can only assume my friend had nodded off at some point. The only thing that irritated me about the film (and it’s a pretty major thing) was that it was brought to you by the crap power of co-incidence, that hoary old screenwriting shortcut/standby. Characters had a habit of simply blundering across each other in a most convenient fashion. One such co-incidence I could probably buy, but when they’re mercilessly piled high (much like the bodycount), you realise that No Country for Old Men is not a masterpiece: it’s an high falutin’ genre film with superior visuals that feel as if they’ve been hijacked from a eminently better, more interesting movie.
Which is a shame, as the Coen brothers get everything else right: a meticulous attention to character, fantastic dialogue, believable relationships – it’s all here. The problem is that it’s wrapped up in a genre that has to rely on some pretty creaky co-incidences in order to keep things moving.