I’m going to throw this out there to start things off: endings aren’t that big a deal to me. I see a movie’s ending as just one small part in the larger sum in weighing whether or not I liked it. I think Signs is a great movie; it’s thrilling, funny, and has shades of Hitchcock’s The Birds, which I also love. But I understand when people say the ending sucked…and while I half-heartedly agree with them, I really don’t care that much.

Same thing happened with the Sopranos series finale, which is probably the closest conclusion I can compare No Country to; there were countless people who despised the sudden black screen in the Jersey diner. For me, I thought it summed up the entire series well and didn’t detract from the overall power of the final episode. Even the closing shots of The Departed were ridiculed…which I found unfair. If I enjoy what I’ve seen for the first 90% of the movie, then I don’t agree that a poorly constructed last 10% should ruin everything.

I wouldn’t go out and say I like ambiguous endings…it’s a case-by-case basis for me on that one, but I’m rarely one to take a director/writer to task for having the finale be unresolved. Unless you’re Tim Burton: the end of Planet of the Apes made absolutely no sense in the context of that horrendous remake.

And context is largely why I found the unnerving final 20 minutes of No Country generally acceptable. Not great or mind-blowing, but acceptable.

But first, here’s what I loved about the movie. The Coen brothers are masters at using their setpieces and scenery as characters; in Fargo, it was the vast winterland of the northern plains with a dash of “Minnesota Nice”; in O Brother (which forgive me, I haven’t seen in many years), it was the impoverished and pious Appalachia; and in No Country, its the desolate south Texas desert. It’s a nice lesson in American geography, if not a severely twisted one. From the opening scenes with Tommy Lee Jones’ monologue, all we see are the miles upon miles of brush and sand without a sole in sight. There’s a sense of regular people going about their regular lives, and in the dirty underbelly, there’s a psychopath killer on the loose. When the two worlds collide, as they do in the scary/funny scene between Javier Bardem and the gas shop owner, No Country truly comes alive.

Since we’re doing this in the context of the Oscars, I’m looking forward to seeing the competition for Best Supporting Actor. Tom Wilkinson was fantastic in Michael Clayton, but Bardem stole this film and brought a fearsome apathy that I haven’t come across in a long time. In lesser hands, Anton Chigurh could have been a Jack Nicholson-style ham job, but Bardem was equally creepy and amusing. Granted, he was playing a killer who shot his victims with a cattle air rifle. That’s rather bad-ass, and everyone loves a bad-ass. But….it was a joy to watch him track down Josh Brolin.

Here’s why the context matters in terms of the plot and its twists. For the majority of the film, we’re watching a disturbing cat-and-mouse game between a heartless machine and a stubborn, but flawed, hunter. Then….the hunter is killed off screen by Mexican drug dealers. It’s a shock, for sure, since the film was leading up to a grand shootout at the Sands motel. But, if Chigurh isn’t going to be given the pleasure of killing Brolin, then it made sense to me that the audience won’t be able to given the pleasure of that murder. Just as Chigurh was likely dissappointed in missing out on the kill, so is the audience. In a perverse way, the Coen Brothers made the audience complicit in Chigurh’s murders…as his story line was by far the most compelling.

Along the same lines, what would be a feasible outcome of Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Bell tracking down Chigurh. In the monologue, Jones says that he only recently started carrying a gun and has almost never used it.

Are we to believe that he’d be able to:

a) find Chigurh
b) arrest him or
c) kill him without getting killed first?

All those are highly unlikely. Had the Coen Brothers changed Cormac McCarthy’s book and arranged a final showdown…the only sensible ending would have been for Chigurh to kill Bell and ride off into the sunset, which I think is kind of predictable and trite. Instead, the sheriff gives up and decides its not worth risking his life because the world has gone to hell.It’s an odd and unsatisfying ending, for sure….but I think it makes sense in the context of the film.

That second to last sentence brings me to my last point. To what extent do we expect the Coen Brothers, or any writer/directors, to hold true to the source material? From what I’ve read and heard, the film No Country for Old Men remains very faithful to the book, including the “meh” ending. Should the Coen Brothers have changed it if they thought it would be a better movie, like Barry Levinson and The Natural? Or do they have an ethical (if not legal, depending on the contract) obligation to keep to the original story? Personally, I believe movies should be judged on their own merits (including biopics), and the faithfulness to the original sources is immaterial to the quality of the film.

In an Oscar sense, I’d be okay with it winning Best Picture, but I am still holding out hope for a number of other movies to excite me. As for screenplay, cinematography, and acting awards, I’ll likely be rooting for the No Country crew at some point or other.