Sunday, 16 March 2008
How to read a film: No Country For Old Men
NOTE: CONTAINS SPOILERS
This is a bit late but, due to some surprisingly hostile reactions to the Coen Brothers’ latest feature film, No Country For Old Men, I’ve decided to expand my comments at Louis P’s.
Bloggers have been vitriolic about the movie, accusing it of a range of crimes from harbouring right-wing politics to cinematic ineptitude. I’ve now seen it twice and I have to take issue with both these charges.
The story about the deadly pursuit of drug money across the Mexican US border is framed by the narration of Sheriff Lamarr, Tommy Lee Jones’s ageing police officer, one of the “old men” of a bygone age who realises there is no place left for him in the ugly new soulless world shaping up around him.
It’s based on Cormac McCarthy’s book which I’ve only skimmed but which everyone seems to agree has been faithfully rendered by Joel and Ethan Coen. Synopses of the novel describe it as being about hazard, chance and fate. While this theme is present in the film, there’s another that deepens the abstract notion and roots it in the changing political and social circumstances of Bush’s America. This raises the story above the level of a mere play-off between the "trailer trash" hero Llewlyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and hitman Anton Chigurh: an existential hero who believes he can change his crummy destiny and a villain who not only believes in fate but is convinced of his own role as its agent.
We’re all affected by our environment – artists can’t escape this as they need to crank their antennae to maximum sensitivity. It’s always fascinating to see artists who set out to do one thing, and say quite another. Balzac is a famous case in point – outwardly, right-wing and reactionary, his writing takes a truthful look at humanity that draws the reader to some fairly progressive conclusions about the grim state of their societies despite the novelist's intentions. Screen adaptations often add something of the artistic vision of the filmmaker – otherwise, why bother? It’s admirable the way director Mary Herron flushed out the criticism of American capitalism implicit in Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho: the author not able to reject totally the rewards of the consumerism he so enjoys.
The Coens may well have done something similar for McCarthy’s novel if, as some have asserted, he never intended such a reading. Although, Annie Proulx would demur as she describes McCarthy’s oeuvre as being the “ongoing study of a burning American rage and how common that rage has become.”
One of the achievements of No Country For Old Men is the creation of a powerful screen monster, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), one with all morality stripped away: some insist this isn’t intended as a political statement but it is hard to see this figure as not reflecting the new pitiless phase capitalism is entering. We know what imperialism is capable of abroad, but now even its own relatively pampered western civilians are coming under the boot as the benign mask of the system is ripped off. And even loveable heroes of the conventional story may not survive this onslaught.
This, the Coen Bros are saying, is the cold bleak reality of the world we now inhabit. There is no room for sentimentality, ideals and fellow feeling - these belong to the old men like Tommy Lee Jones who are a dying breed. To Anton Chigurh, a “living prophet of destruction”, it’s all numbers, a warped logic, a person’s life decided on the toss of a coin.
Chigurh, in his relentless cold cruelty and horror, is a force of nature. His rival hitman, Woody Harrelson’s Carson Wells, compares him to “bubonic plague”. Air is his element, his chosen method of dispatch, but the means are all human productions. A cattle-killer. Perfect! In one scene, where he’s stealing from a pharmacy, he’s shot unblinking against the explosive flames of his method of distraction. There’s a precursor in the relentless killing machines of The Terminator - but this monster is entirely human, distorted by capitalist imperatives. And he does love his money.
The filmmaking is supremely effective. Note the way the Coen Bros reverse the order of how much of the horror of the killings you see – reducing it event by event to produce maximum psychological mayhem instead of building to a visual climax. They set this up beautifully as if they were winding up an elastic band in our heads, releasing it in the final chilling moments so that we do the work. And it’s all the more vivid for that.
In a reversal of the usual form, they start with the after-effects of a drug-deal slaughter – humans and animals decaying in the hot southern US sun. Then we are shown the process in the most detailed drawn out killing. It’s of a minor character, the police officer, someone we don’t know and for whom we care little or nothing. Slowly and painfully, his life ebbs away as Chigurh strangles him while communing hypnotically with the deep dark forces driving him.
The random killing of the car driver is seen in gory detail using a captive bolt stunner, a cattle device using compressed air. As we get closer to the fate of the protagonist, we need to see less and less, as it’s starting to take place in our imagination and we fill in the gaps better than any closed-ended film images could do.
Following more crimo wipe-outs by Chigurh, there’s another break with the expected norm. The protagonist’s killing is by the drug criminals, not by nemesis Chigurh, and takes place offscreen with the added touch of the dead woman bystander in the pool.
This has led to some of the shrillest outcries in the blogosphere. Storytelling convention dictates that the worst thing that can happen to Llewlyn Moss is that he fails in his quest to keep the money and is killed. But the Coens ratchet up the horror beyond this. If that’s the worst, then what’s the very worst - what some in film have called “the negation of the negation”, to borrow a term that will have others reaching for their guns?
Yes, they could have had a mundane shoot-out with Chigurh spectacularly killing Moss. But this isn’t solely what the film is about. This is a world that turns on its head our notion of who is heroic, who deserves to die or survive, and all the rest that our cultured enlightenment brains tell us is right. Under the new order, heroes die pathetically while the juggernaut monster destroys innocence. Chigurh reaches Moss beyond the grave by killing his wife and doesn’t even care. The hero has failed, not only to keep the money, but to save his Beloved. The story doesn’t stop with his death but pursues him beyond the grave — that’s horror.
And now Chigurh is abroad in the world to continue his murderous spree.
Darfur, Katrina/New Orleans, Iraq - these are all places where the rule book has been ripped up. And it’s coming to a location near us.
By the time we get to the climactic death of innocence in Chigurh’s pointless, vindictive murder of Llewlyn’s wife, Carla Jean, all we need to see is the tiny vain gesture as he steps out of the house after the event — and he checks his expensive boots. I found this such a profoundly upsetting moment. This is not an open end as some have claimed. The Coens build relentlessly to this moment. Once she refuses to call the coin toss, she’s sealed her fate - Chigurh sees himself merely as an instrument of that fate with no choice himself. Checking the boots tells you everything about what has just happened.
Even worse, we now know that this was a bloody killing from what’s been set up before, and it’s not even a bloodless strangling. This is a fastidious killer who doesn’t like to make a mess with blood and certainly doesn’t want it on his boots (ostrich, according to the book). Her life is simply something he stepped in. Despite our hopes, he shows no mercy towards the woman who has lost her mother, whose husband is now dead (so revenge isn’t the motivation), and who now stands alone in the world. Chigurh is a juggernaut that rolls on with no sense of fairness, truth, justice and the rest of the malarky we’ve believed is our right since the the dawn of capitalism. He derives no pleasure, no satisfaction – he embodies the monstrousness of the bureaucrat. He is only doing his job. Like the cancer that killed Carla Jean's mother, Chigurh has one single pitiless function — to kill without sentiment.
We’ve seen a similar character in the Coen brothers’ movies before — the unstoppable evil force of destruction embodied by John Goodman’s Charlie Meadows in Barton Fink.
This scene has also led to tantrums in cyberspace, with some insisting that she wasn’t killed, and claims that Chigurh may well have shown mercy. To them I say: wake up, sunshine. What film have you been watching?
Let’s suppose that, as some critics would have preferred, the Coens had shown her murder. Think of any gory horror permutation of images we’ve already seen in the cinema. Close up of her face? His pleasure? Blood? Brutality? We’ve already seen depictions of violence in this very film. What would have been gained? More numbing images? Yeah yeah, we’ve seen it all before. This way it takes place in the head, not on the screen. That’s masterful. They’re trying to show us a new world dawning and requires a whole new vocabulary.
In answer to the charge of nihilism, I would say that to so thoroughly miss the point of what the Coens have achieved is nothing short of flat-out pitiful. Yes, Carla Jean Moss loses her life, but she wins the argument. Even when faced with her own extinction, she has choice. Chigurh takes her life, but not her soul.
The film is pessimistic, but not entirely so. Chigurh is, after all, wounded in another random accident, so he’s not all-powerful. Carla Jean remains defiant at the end. Even though she will be killed, she refuses to play his game and therefore she dies a heroine, refusing to beg for the mercy she knows will not be forthcoming.
Her initial attempts to reach his humanity and reason with him are rebuffed with warped logic predicated on Moss’s failure to return the money, getting himself killed instead.
“You don’t have to hurt me”.
“No. But I gave my word to your husband. He had the opportunity to save you but he used it to save himself.”
“You don’t have to do this.”
“People always say the same thing.”
He offers he the chance to win her life on the toss of the coins.
“This is the best I can do. Call it!”
"No, I ain’t gonna call it. The coins don’t have no say. It’s just you.”
Carla Jean keeps her dignity, is defiant to the end, and wins the moral victory by not playing his game. You may be in front of a fascist death squad but raising your fist declares victory of your spirit.
Hope for humanity continues in the boy who shows concern and offers his shirt out of kindness. Even if you personally fail against the predations of capitalism, as many are feeling, there’s still hope of the spirit and a new generation. Some things never die. It’s a wonderful positive message of hope and optimism to see us through one of the darkest passages of human history that’s getting darker by the minute.
If you’re still not convinced that this is at least partially a critique of capitalism, look at the way fate is settled – not with sticks or cards, but with coins. Could that be capitalism with its vice-like grip on our lives telling us through various ways that we ultimately have no power? As the human being and not the force, Chigurh suffers from hubris and even he is subordinate to chance - hence the crash at the end.
The Coens have taken a snapshot of where we are now and presented it to us in a way that doesn’t numb us like a lot of the cynical fare being served up, but shocks us into seeing where we are so that maybe we can do something about it. And in that respect it is to me a deeply humane film.
For more on film from Madam Miaow, see her essay on Sergei Eisenstein