Theory Teacher's Blog

Lone Star / No Country for Old Men

I just showed Lone Star, written and directed by John Sayles, to my English class. I remember when I first watched it in the movie theater in 1996, back when I was reading a lot of Raymond Chandler detective novels. Back then, two things about the movie really struck me. First, what a cool idea it is to use the noir detective genre to explore the history of race relations. After watching the movie, I began to read African-American detective novelists Walter Mosley and Barbara Neely, who also do this really well. Second, that Elizabeth Peña is one of the sexiest actresses of all time. (Hey now — I know this is a theory-teacher blog, but I’m just saying what I was thinking as a young guy thirteen years ago.)

That was 1996, but last year, as a teacher, I was reminded of Lone Star because the Coen brothers’ movie No Country for Old Men won so many Academy Awards then. And here’s why I can’t help but make the connection between the two movies, and why I can’t help but think Lone Star is the movie that most clearly demonstrates what a load of crap No Country is. Both movies are about the Texas-Mexico border. Both movies can be categorized as noir. (Noir is usually defined as hardboiled and morally ambiguous crime fiction.) Both movies feature a supernaturally evil villain. Both movies were nominated for a lot of awards.

But those similarities make the differences all the more striking. Lone Star actually developes white, black, and Hispanic characters in some depth, whereas in No Country, the Hispanic characters hardly speak at all, which is kind of messed up considering that its main character Llewelyn Moss spends some time across the Mexican border. In other words, in No Country, Hispanic characters are more symbolic than real, and the movie is somewhat racist in the way that, symbolically, their presence in the story is always associated with drugs, violence, and the moral degredation of society. In contrast, as one of my students pointed out in class a couple days ago, Lone Star actually has black and Hispanic poeple in it, who talk and think like real people and whose lives are cross-culturally entangled the way real peoples’ lives are — in other words, they aren’t some assinine Hollywood stereotype or a plot device or shorthand symbol for violence. You can tell Sayles put a lot of thought into his movie  (as you can see his interview about it [here].) To put it another way, we come away from watching Lone Star with a better understanding of the Texas-Mexico border than we came in with, but we come away from No Country with a worse understanding than we came in with.

Second, Lone Star features many conversations among characters of different backgrounds (not just cultural backgrounds, but also professional backgrounds) and uses the cinematic form of the noir detective story to bring their inter-connectedness to the surface. In contrast, the only lengthy conversations we see in No Country are either between a couple of old, white sheriffs moaning about the good old days or between the psychopathic killer and his victims. While the noir structure of Lone Star encourages us to develop a more complex ethical vision, the noir structure of No Country merely excites and titilates us. Now, against my argument, I suppose someone might point out that the absurdity of No Country — along with its unresolved, troubling ending — deconstructs our nostalgic sense of law and order, and I would grant that that’s true… but so what?

Finally, the evil villain in Lone Star is the white sheriff who stands in as a symbolic figure for the systemic violence of racism and who must be overthrown by a collaboration among black, white, and Hispanic characters, but the evil villain in No Country is an unbelievably omniscient psychopath who stands in as a symbolic figure for the arbitrary randomness and senselessness of criminal violence. Curiously, this villain’s ethnicity is vague — all we know is that he is somehow foreign, a foreigness which is used by the Coen brothers to augment his evilness. It is curious that a character who is meant to symbolize the monstrosity of pure evil has to be not just somehow foreign, but indeterminately foreign.

In my view, John Sayles is one of the most ethical writer-directors of all time, and many actresses and actors have said they love acting in his movies because they feel like they are performing real characters. Especially women have noted that his female characters actually have some depth and aren’t just a projection of a male writer/director’s fantasy about, desire for, or fear of women. This is especially true in his beautiful movie, Casa de los Babys. To be fair to the Coen brothers, most of the time, I think they also do a wonderful job in their movies, just not in this one.

But here of course is the kicker. While Lone Star was nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay, it didn’t win. In contrast, No Country was the Coen brothers’s most successful film of their careers, nominated for eight Academy awards with four wins, including best screenplay even though the movie was merely adapted from the novel. (And if you’ve read the novel, which I have, you’ll see that the Coen brothers didn’t do much with the story. Their cinematography was excellent, for sure, but best screenplay?) In other words, the Academy Awards was stupid and unethical in 2008 just as it was in 2009 for giving all the awards to Slumdog Millionaire. (About that movie, see my blog post [here], and also go to your local Barnes & Nobel or Borders bookstore and get the current issue (#78) of CineAction, which features a terrific analysis of Slumdog… as well as, I’m not too modest to mention, my own essay about James Bond, which was originally conceived in this very blog!) However, in spite of the lameness of the Academy Awards, I won’t despair because all of the critial and scholarly essays that continue to be published about Lone Star assures me that it will endur as a classic, while No Country will fade as a cinematic novelty.


September 5, 2009 - Posted by | movies, race


  1. […] with waking up early for tomorrow’s Military Sci-Fi Convention in downtown Washington, D.C. Lone Star / No Country for Old Men – 09/05/2009 I just showed Lone Star , written and directed by John […]

    Pingback by Posts about Mexico Violence as of September 6, 2009 | EL CHUCO TIMES_El Paso_News | September 6, 2009 | Reply

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more Steve! I’ve tried to tell my friends who love No Country how disturbing, racist, and utterly pointless the movie is, but they just think it’s brilliant. Your argument is much more convincing than mine, so I think I will send them your blog link…

    Comment by Hanna | October 13, 2009 | Reply

  3. I reached this blog entry after googling “lone star and no country for old men”. Great analysis!!!

    Comment by Greg | June 17, 2010 | Reply

  4. I was with you until Casa de los babys, which was quite possibly his worst film.

    Comment by Henry Morello | January 15, 2013 | Reply

    • Henry, true, it’s not as good as most of his others, but I disagree about it being his worst. And my point is that it’s rare for male directors to write women characters that well. You should check out Juffer’s commentary on the movie in Single Mother. And even Sayle’s worst film is still better than No Country for Old Men, in my opinion.

      Comment by steventhomas | January 15, 2013 | Reply

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