No Country for Satisfying Endings

[I keep discussing No Country For Old Men with a film fan friend of mine, trying to figure out if the movie was unsatisfying because they screwed up, or if the problem is that I am only satisfied by a Hollywood ending. I'm leaning towards thinking they screwed up, and it wasn't just a Hollywood ending that was missing. So here are my latest thoughts I emailed to my friend.]

I thought of another way to think of No Country for Old Men, or the problem with that movie. (I haven't read the book yet, so can't tell if the problem is copied over from the book, or if it originates with the movie). The last few Stephen King books I've read, ones written after his car accident, played up the fact that he was intentionally not going to solve some mystery. In The Cincinnati Kid, a pair of old hometown reporters tell a young reporter details about a corpse found on a beach, a murder mystery that was never solved and remains unsolved at the end of the book. From a Buick 8 is all about an old car locked in a police garage, with all kinds of mysterious supernatural events that happen around it over the years. People find mutant creatures that appear in the car, a couple people disappear after they mess with the car and leave the trunk open, as if it’s a gateway to another dimension. Lots of speculation about why the things happen, but no confirmation. In both cases, the narrators or some of the characters point out how real life mysteries don’t always have tidy endings.

So I get the point that Stephen King is trying to be more realistic by not wrapping up all the loose ends (or enough of the loose ends?).

My favorite wise old creative writing teacher Dr. Cross used to always say, "Fiction has to be better than real life." He said that students would bring a story, and he'd say it didn't sound real or didn't work very well, and they would protest that it was a true story, that it happened to them just that way in real life. He'd say that doesn't matter, because fiction still has to be better than real life.

If you think about it, the best true stories depicted in movies or in fiction or even newspaper articles or memoirs, have to focus on certain events and leave out other events. The ultimate in realism would be a lot of boring moments with a few exciting or relevant moments. Stories and movies have to balance being as realistic as possible vs. making the story satisfying. Stephen King and the Coen Bros are just sacrificing the usual requirements of a tight, satisfying story in favor of what they think is more realistic dangling loose ends, and the trade-off doesn't seem to have paid off. [There were enough interesting elements in the movie that I enjoyed it, and I'll probably watch it again. But the off-screen climax seems more like an error than an interesting storytelling technique.)


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