Tuesday, August 17, 2010
No Country For Old Men (2007) A Film by Joel and Ethan Coen
I didn't like No Country for Old Men much the first time I saw it. I admired the tension Joel and Ethan Coen created in the visceral "chase" scenes, but was left unsatisfied by the ultimate direction of the narrative, the way the Coens seemingly dropped their mounting themes in favor of smaller subtexts towards the end of the film. I did not like how they indulged their characteristic urge to have their characters straddle a line between concept and caricature, such as when they insist on getting a wry chuckle out of an otherwise fascinating figure. To me, that was Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in the film, the unstoppably methodical killer at the heart of No Country For Old Men whose intriguing, mysterious resonance is frequently diluted by silly, offbeat character tics. Most of all, I was put off by the Coens' typically unnecessary "comic relief", which has the effect of bringing the film to a meandering halt. For the most part, No Country For Old Men is lighter in this regard than most of the brothers' films, but the very fact that they did include such scenes was irritating. To me, it's evidence of the Coens' somewhat compromising nature, the way they feel compelled to include every emotional spectrum in a film that very well may not call for such variety, as if the audience would be instantly bored if they endured a stretch of austerity for too long. For what it's worth (and it's not worth much), the Coens' postmodern Western stood out to me as a massive misstep for Best Picture by the Oscar committee, and one of the most overrated films of the past decade.
But, thank God and the frequently remedial digital video disc for second chances, as it turns out No Country For Old Men is not nearly the trifle I suspected it upon first viewing. Actually, there is a deep vein of richness to it, much of which is surely inherited from Cormac McCarthy's source novel, but which is also expanded upon by the Coens' deft cinematic sensibilities, their distinct understanding of how a film works in cerebral, subliminal ways. Its narrative is simple, archetypal: a gruff Vietnam veteran, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), stumbles over a dope running gone wrong and discovers the inevitable suitcase filled with hundred dollar bills, only to then find himself the target of a maniacal killing machine (Bardem), all while an aging sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), pursues the criminal. Basically, it's the stuff of a classic Western, yet it's uncomfortably bereft of the traditional values and dichotomies that would safely tie everything together in the end. A nihilistic work without any reliable moral center, the Coens are constantly highlighting the subtle similarities between the three central characters, the supposed "good", "bad", and "average" guys, whether zeroing in on a congruent behavior, framing them in the same ways at different times, or literally associating them with a specific line of dialogue, as when early in the film Chigurh holds up his bizarre cattle gun to the head of an innocent man on the side of the road and mutters the phrase "hold still", which is followed by a crosscut to Llewelyn narrowing the aim of his gun barrel at a deer and repeating the same line.
Another series of shots early on have the same effect of unsettling equalization, and also illustrate the Coens' theme of the banality of evil. After finding the case of $2 million, Llewelyn returns to his small trailer-park home and evades his wife Carla Jean's (Kelly Macdonald) incessant questioning. The Coens reveal a chain of simplistic images of domesticity, the kind of by-the-numbers man-comes-home-to-wife shots that one might have seen in, say, Fritz Lang's The Big Heat. But Llewelyn is fidgety, squirming out of his chair and out of the frames faster than his wife wants him to. Something is not right. He ends up leaving the house late in the night just hours before the break of dawn to bring a jug of water to a struggling survivor of the crime scene in the desert, a move that ultimately signals the beginning of his end. Shortly after, Chigurh has secured important documents about his prey's identity from Llewelyn's car, whose tires were burst when the vengeful figures arrived. His first step is to go straight to Llewelyn's trailer and bust through the door lock with his cattle gun. The couple has left the premises, and after searching the rooms with clinical precision, the Coens repeat the earlier shots of Llewelyn and Carla Jean, this time occupied by the invasive Chigurh. He casually drinks milk from the fridge (substituting for Llewelyn's beer) and has a moment of repose on the couch. This sequence acquires the element of relaxation and comfort missing from the one prior. Chigurh has thoroughly invaded not only their space, but also their routines. Then there is an elegant grace note, an impressionistic shot of the television across the room with Chigurh's ghostly silhouette reflected on it. When the Sheriff inevitably goes through the same routine moments later (even sipping from the milk), the Coens repeat this image, likening these dichotomous figures through a seemingly offhand, ephemeral glimpse.
In the Coens' warped outlook, such is the nature of crime and justice, a procession of behaviors in which no one's quite in the right place at the right time. The closest any of the three main characters come from occupying the same frame at the same time is in a last-moment getaway when Llewelyn leaps out of a motel window just as Chigurh enters the room to fire a shotgun in his general direction, amounting to only a split-second of shared screen space which may very well be the film's most heart-racing snippet. Otherwise, this is a profoundly non-confrontational film that gathers all of its tension from suggestion and rising action. Though every character is ostensibly chasing something or being chased, whether it's an ideal or a person, there is never any resolution to this nifty cat-and-mouse act, no climactic outburst of violence. As for the violence that does exist, the Coens are most content showing either the repercussions or the physical traces of it as opposed to the entirety of the graphic encounters themselves. When Chigurh strangles a police station attendant early on with his handcuffs, the emphasis is less on the metal-to-flesh contact as it is on the scuff marks of flailing boots on the floor, the image of Man's abstract, fossilized aggression. In doing so, the recurring motif of boots becomes intimately associated with violence and Man's relationship to the Earth, enough so that by the time Chigurh has an encounter with Carla Jean towards the end of the film, his dust-off of his boots outside is enough to clarify the unseen murder. Similarly, the spilled milk inside the motel entrance after Chigurh has entered is enough - thanks to the random linking of milk to Chigurh from earlier - to imply that whoever is behind the kiosk has been killed.
These kinds of subtle visual gestures are littered throughout No Country For Old Men, providing unexpected insights into the characters and thematic concerns. What the Coens are getting at is that the very ground we live on has been progressively tainted by the actions of Man, and that what Man has ultimately constructed for himself is emptiness, lack of defined moral reasoning, and reliance upon fate alone. Like the Dawn of Man sequence in 2001, the Coens begin the film with a visualization of a barren, empty landscape, only this time, the position of humanity is at the opposite end of the spectrum. It has not just begun its fateful journey, but has instead found itself at a troubling crossroads where only violence emerges from the emptiness. Though Chigurh is clearly the "villain", he's also somewhat of a walking embodiment of the Reaper, dispassionately bringing death at random as a function of fate (he carries around a quarter and flips it for his victims before systematically taking their lives). Yet he's not entirely remote and devoid of motivation; the crazed money hunger that drives him towards his end goal is nothing if not reflective of a capitalist society at large. However, while the film is essentially lamenting an "old-timer" practice of thinking and acting that corresponds with Ed Tom's father's generation, it's also silently lauding the productivity and determination of the lawless world it's depicting. The frightening poise and intelligence of Chigurh is pitted against the somnambulant, voyeuristic role of Ed Tom, who is mournfully reading about violent crimes in the newspaper more than he is solving or stopping them; Chigurh is a man of action while Ed Tom is consistently falling up short, preferring to wallow in confusion at the anarchic evil in the world. So there's this abysmal strain of ambivalence in the film that cannot be sorted out easily.
For all this riveting nihilism (and I love this about the film, its willingness to tackle a rather pessimistic worldview in an exciting, almost formulaic manner), No Country For Old Men fizzles out into what seems like an off-kilter, uncharacteristically hopeful conclusion. In a daring move, the Coens substantially shift their focus from the chase game between Chigurh and Llewelyn to a philosophical examination of the soon-to-be retiree Ed Tom. Llewelyn, to some extent the absolute main character in the film up until this point, is even extinguished offscreen in a bloody massacre at a fleabag motel. The Coens only show his body from a distance, face-down. The separate fates of the money and Chigurh are left unanswered. Though this is clearly a bracingly unconventional decision, and one that interestingly lines up with the rest of the film from a thematic standpoint (death is unpredictable, permanence is unlikely), I'm not sure if it necessarily strengthens the film as a film. That is to say, it doesn't make the experience any more pleasurable. Quite the contrary, it sucks the momentum away. The tone of the final scenes - quiet, introspective, dialogue-heavy - contrasts jarringly with the otherwise muscular forward motion of the rest of the film, and the deliberate decrescendo reverts to a rather streamlined vision of hope, a suggestion that simple complacency and optimism can alleviate such horrors. Ed Tom's final pronunciation "and then I woke up", spoken after a pair of recalled dreams with his father, has the unfortunate effect of placing the entire film in the context of some sort of dream-reality where the events onscreen are malleable and correctable. But what the Coens have devised feels so grounded, so palpable. It's a real shot in the dark to think that the kind of banal ambiguity the film luxuriates in could be properly digested and consummated. I remain skeptical of where the brothers' film ultimately goes, even if for its duration I sat in awe at the meticulously crafted existential thriller it was. But only a film this complex, this multifaceted, could be this troubling.