Thursday, November 29, 2007

No Country for Old Men

There will be spoilers.

Plot Synopsis

Adapted from an early novel by Cormac McCarthy ("Blood Meridian") which I haven't read, Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men is about a Texas man, Llewelyn Moss/Josh Brolin, who stumbles upon a drug deal gone bad while hunting in the desert, and steals a briefcase containing two million dollars in cash. After returning to the crime scene to give a jug of water to a dying man/Eduardo Antonio Garcia, he finds himself pursued by Anton Chigurh/Javier Berdem, a sociopath whose weapon of choice is an abattoir air gun. Pursuing Anton are the local sheriff, Ed Tom Bell/Tommy Lee Jones and a professional bounty hunter, Carson Wells/Woody Harrelson. In exchange for the money, Anton offers not to kill Llewelyn's wife, Carla Jean/Kelly Macdonald, but Llewelyn refuses and Anton kills them both. Unable to catch Anton, Ed decides to retire from police work.

"We believe in nothing"

This is one of the most pessimistic films I can recall seeing; although the desert setting makes it seem like a western, it's actually closer to film noir (in an early scene in Llewelyn and Carla Jean's trailer, a 1940's noir is even playing on the television). Then again, I'd be hard-pressed to find a film noir with so much evil and so little good. Leaving the theater, we overheard a woman say to her companion "Too much killing for me," which is both perfectly understandable and adorable. The film's message is that some people are just plain evil, bad things happen to good people and everything's a matter of chance. At one point, Ed mentions to Carla Jean an item he read in the newspaper about a couple in California that murdered old people in order to cash their social security checks. "They tortured them first. Maybe the TV was broken." Ed reflects the failure of law enforcement to prevent murders like that from happening in the first place.

This is a limited conceit as it precludes interrogating where evil comes from, instead treating it as a pure, metaphysical state--one might argue its position is exactly opposite that of Jean Renoir's La R├Ęgle du jeu (1939), in which Octave/Renoir says at one point "Everyone has their reasons." The motif of the coin is first introduced in a sequence in which Anton walks into a gas station and decides to spare the attendant/Gene Jones' life based on the result of a coin toss. It recurs again in a climatic scene where Ed stands outside a motel room which Anton has broken into, using his air gun to break the lock. To enter would mean certain death for Ed (see next paragraph), but when he opens the door, Anton has mysteriously vanished. On the floor, Ed finds a coin like the one in the gas station. In the next scene, in which Anton just as mysterious appears in Carla Jean's home, he denies responsibility for his actions when she tells him "You don't have to do this" by responding: "I got here the same way the coin did," recalling the moment in the gas station when he tells the attendant that the coin, which was minted in 1958, had taken twenty-two years to make it to this spot. As he's leaving, he instructs the attendant to put the coin anywhere but his pocket, where it'll get mixed in with other coins and become just another quarter--"which it is."

Anton's Big Cock

From the first sequence, in which Anton strangles a deputy sheriff/Zach Hopkins with his handcuffs, the film views him with a kind of mythic awe. Without backstory or motivation, he's endowed with such supernatural ability (Ed compares him at one point to a ghost) that the film threatens to feel over-determined: Anton is so obviously stronger than Llewelyn that the ending is almost inevitable. As in Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), where the hero/Max von Sydow plays a game of chess with Death/Bengt Ekerot, the ending is a foregone conclusion. By the time Anton follows Llewelyn to a motel where the latter has cleverly stashed the loot in an air vent so the tracking device hidden in the case points Anton to the wrong room, it already feels like Llewelyn is being chased by the devil. The one time he's able to wound Anton physically, it's using his own weapon, which in this context comes to represent a kind of fetish object and phallic symbol--the source of Anton's magical powers. There's even an example of The Denzel Washington Shot in which Anton walks towards the camera in the foreground while a car explodes in the background.

In his review of the film, Jonathan Rosenbaum speculates that the film is hitting such a nerve with audiences partly because of its timing; linking it to The Silence of the Lambs (1991), which was released during the first Gulf war, he argues that Americans who feel uneasy about the war might find something reassuring about Anton's ability to kill a lot of innocent people without one shred of remorse. While I don't totally agree, he's definitely on to something in terms of our over-identification with Anton. In her essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Laura Mulvey argues that Hollywood cinema gives us identification figures stronger and more perfect than we possibly could be; one might apply a Nitzchean reading to the film, in which Anton is the ultimate ├╝bermensch who exists outside conventional morality--at one point, Carson even says that Anton operates by a moral code of his own. Complicating matters (or at least clouding them) is the fact that we're meant to identify equally with the three leads.

"I'm still out a shirt"

As gripping as it is as a piece of storytelling, the film falls flat on its face when it attempts any kind of social analysis. Although the story is set in 1980, the Coens make no attempt to tie the story to anything happening at the time; both Llewelyn and Carson are Vietnam vets, but this bit of backstory exists merely to set-up a later sequence in which an American border guard/Brandon Smith decides to let Llewelyn back into the United States only after he learns that he's a vetern. Even worse is the film's reliance on Mexican stereotypes: when Llewelyn first crosses the border, there's a shot of a sleeping Mexican border guard (by comparison, the American border guard is a total hard-ass); after Llewelyn passes out on the street, he's woken up by a Mariachi band; and although we're invited to feel superior to Carla Jean's mother, Agnes/Beth Grant, when she says "It's so rare to see a Mexican in a suit," (a) he's a drug dealer, and (b) his tacky suit and pencil mustache don't exactly look professional. There are two amusing sequences involving different groups of young boys who negotiate the price of a shirt with Llewelyn and Anton on separate occasions that illustrate the corrupting power of money, but even these scenes are pretty broad--both times, there's literally blood on the money.

Rhyme Effects

The repetition of a line of dialogue or certain composition serves to underline the similarities between the three leads. The most obvious example of this happens fairly early and is so obvious it effectively bares the device: the film cuts from Anton telling a hapless man/Chip Love to stand still, so he can kill him with his air gun, to Llewelyn hunting animals in the desert; while eying his target through the scope of his rifle, he tells the animal to stay still for a second. Later, Ed goes to Llewelyn's trailer just after Anton has left (he discerns this from the fact that the milk bottle is still sweating); calmly, Ed sits in the same spot where Anton sat, pours himself a glass of milk and stares into the TV screen which neither man thinks to turn on. And at the motel, both Llewelyn and Anton request a map. The implication is that all three are, at various stages of the film, the hunter and the hunted. In the last two examples, both Ed and Anton are actively trying to put themselves in the shoes of the other man.

Auteurism

With the exception of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), The Lady Killers (2004), which I haven't seen, and this film, all of the Coens' previous films are original screenplays; however, given the range of genre and tones, their debt to classical Hollywood (especially Preston Sturges--the title of O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a reference to Sullivan's Travels [1942]) and the unevenness of their work, one hesitates to call them auteurs. At best, they seem like clever stylists with an encyclopedic (if Amerocentric) knowledge of film history and a gift for appropriating everything in sight. While less reference happy than, say, The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), No Country for Old Men contains references to Hitchcock's Psycho (1960)--a high-angle shot of Carson ascending a flight of stairs in a hotel that tells us he's about to be killed even before Anton appears behind him--and Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971), which was released during the Vietnam war and regards a milk-drinking sociopath with an almost equal level of Nitzchean awe. More abundant, however, are references to the Coens' own films: the Texas setting, Ed's opening narration and the long stretches of silence recall Blood Simple (1984); Anton's super-human strength reminds one of the bounty hunter/Randall Cobb in Raising Arizona (1987); and the low-angle shots racing down the highway at night, illuminated by a car's headlights, are straight out of Fargo (1996). The ability to take some one else's material and make it your own is a sign of an auteur, but here, the similarities are pretty superficial. At best, they add up to a game of reference spotting, in which one tries to find allusions to all of the Coens' previous work.

Conclusion

Reading back on what I've written, I realize it might come across like I didn't enjoy the film very much, and while I don't think it's quite the masterpiece it's being touted as, I did enjoy it a fair bit (or else I wouldn't even be writing about it). As a film about serial killers and a piece of social analysis, it's limited when compared to Fritz Lang's M (1931), in which the killer/Peter Lorre is given more humanity (by treating Anton simply as a monster, the filmmakers are in effect providing him with an alibi: he's not responsible because he doesn't have a choice) and the social analysis cuts a lot deeper (ultimately, Lang's film tells us nothing about what produces a serial killer either, but uses the killer as a device to reveal the hypocrisies of German society in the early 1930's). However, purely as a thriller, this is one of the Coens' most entertaining movies, along with Blood Simple (still their most interesting film), Barton Fink (1991), The Big Lebowski (1998) and The Man Who Wasn't There (2001). The performances are uniformly excellent, the elaborate cat-and-mouse game between Llewelyn and Anton is genuinely suspenseful, and the sound of Anton's air gun shooting open a lock almost gave me a heart attack. Whatever quibbles I might have, I wasn't bored.

2 comments:

  1. I've been waiting for a while for a film I had seen so I could read/comment. As always, I really enjoy reading your analysis and am often enlightened on bits and pieces I might have missed. Don't worry about having come across as not liking the film, because it never occured to me that you didn't enjoy it until you brought it up. Your issues are minor, and rather than glaring faults seem to be simply part of the process taken when we are considering and evaluating films that are ambitious and interesting.

    Your comparisons to film noir are very apt, and while I've seen others bring it up, none as clearly as you have. Strangely enough, the only filmmaker that comes remotely close to having the same negativity with, as you said, so little good is Lang, but even at his most pessimistic he does seem to have a bit more light then this film does. You compare the film with M, but I think it can be as easily compared to The Big Heat. Although, perhaps roles are reversed. Ford and Jones strike me as similar characters, while one is forceful in his reckless behavior, Jones is reckless because he isn't forceful, and instead of pushing forward is standing far behind out of harm's way.

    It's a film I can't wait to see again to say the very least. Maybe it'll be a little clearer on a review. I also desperately need to see Blood Simple, I'll try and fix that within the next week or two.

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  2. Well, when I talk about some one as obscure as Len Lye and even Bill Viola, I basically assume that no one reading the blog has seen these movies. In both cases, I basically just tried to describe the work (which is also my aim here--I mean, no one really needs a plot sypnopsis if they've seen the film, but it was important to me in writing my essay), and since neither tells a story, you don't have to worry about me spoiling them.

    As far as my being worried about it seeming that I didn't like No Country for Old Men, maybe I'm just being over-sensitive, since I thought I gave Len Lye a fair shake a month ago, but Heather said I was being super harsh.

    And with regards to The Big Heat, I didn't think Ed/Jones was being wreckless at all. If Anton hadn't vanished from the motel room when he did, he would've killed him. If anything, Ed's impotent rather than wreckless.

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