Wednesday, December 05, 2007

"No Country for Old Men"

As you might recall, some days ago I went to the movies and saw "The Mist" and "No Country for Old Men" in one evening. You can read my long-winded take on "The Mist" here. That one was full of spoilers as I was itching to talk about the ending. No spoilers in this one, so read on without fear, O ye uninitiated!

The second billing in my double feature was, inarguably, the better film. Nothing against "The Mist", but "No Country for Old Men" was a return to form for the genius Coen Brothers, easily one of their top five films, and that's hard for any movie, even a Darabont movie, to top.

I read the eponymous Cormac McCarthy novel when it came out way back in 2005 and I was blown away by it. I'd never read anything that was so satisfyingly lurid, but written in such a spare, poetical way as to suggest literature. Or at least nearly that. And, along with Judge Holden, Anton Chigurh was the literary villain I most wished I'd thought of first. You can read that dusty post here.

Briefly, "No Country" is set in 1980, and concerns Llewellyn Moss, a welder who finds a big satchel filled with two million dollars out in the desert plains of West Texas. The owners of that money hire an uncontrollable but highly effective psychotic named Chigurh to retrieve that money, and his quest and his strange but oddly consistent ethics require him to leave a trail of bodies in his wake, most of them aerated by his trusty pneumatic cattle gun. But, as we come to find, the film really belongs to Ed Tom Bell, the county Sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones (who ought to get a Best Actor award for this film to go with his Best Supporting) who sees in Chigurh's senseless carnage the end of something essential in the world.

So why is this a "return to form" for the Coen brothers? In some form or another, nearly all of the Coens' films have dealt with crime, often focusing on desperate, but comical characters who feel driven to step afoul of the law. "No Country" is a return to form in that it's a crime movie and because, like "Fargo"(1996) takes itself and its characters seriously. But "No Country" also transcends that "form" because it represents a first for them: a straightforward crime movie adapted from a straightforward piece of crime fiction. Though there are funny moments in the film -- the humor almost always coming from the characters' sardonic wit -- the Coens never attempt to leaven the overall darkness of the film with scenes that display their signature sense of humor. They've put themselves aside for this movie, and in being so respectful of McCarthy's novel, the Coens may have made the film that, so far, best exemplifies their sensibilities as filmmakers. If "Vertigo" is Hitchcock's most Hitchockian film, and "Goodfellas" Scorsese's most Scorsesian film, then "No Country for Old Men" may prove to be the Coens' most Coensian movie. And if this turns out to be the best film they make, then it's due in large part to the work of the cast and crew they assembled.

Crew: I'd say Roger Deakins turns in Best Cinematography Award-level work here. Other DPs seem almost desperate to put their particular stamp on a film. Deakins' stamp is this: if a film seems perfectly shot, if every composition and every lighting choice seems thoughtful, if every frame is designed for maximum impact, then you're seeing a Roger Deakins movie. Another Coens stalwart, Carter Burwell, does great work here. I don't remember a note of it, but like we were told in film-school, a good film score's supposed to be unobtrusive. I'm sure the "No Country" score will prove to just as brilliant whenever I get a chance to listen to it by itself; or maybe the second time I watch the movie.

The cast: Josh Brolin, he of "Goonies" fame (he played Sean Astin's older brother), has grown up into the consummate alpha male film actor: big-shouldered, square-jawed and just as at home in a white hat as in a black. Maybe that's why he wears the grey-hat of this film so well. He's so good in this you forget he's Josh Brolin. Javier Bardem was not remotely who I imagined in the role of Chigurh when I read the novel, but he does very well in a role that would have been a homerun for nearly any serious dramatic actor. But it's Tommy Lee Jones and his character's sad arc that make me love this movie.

Jones' Ed Tom Bell is interesting for a lot of reasons, not least of which is the fact that Ed Tom is the antithesis of Sam Gerard, the character he played so perfectly in "The Fugitive" (1993) and the role that made him famous. In some respect, these films could act as Tommy Lee Jones bookends. These characters, both lawmen, are antithetical to one another in that Ed Tom has allowed himself to absorb his work, to feel it on an emotional level, and all the horror and base human cruelty that entails. The mental hardship of that absorption has taken its toll on Ed Tom, a toll Jones makes subtly clear by the gentle way he speaks and his weary, perpetually astonished demeanor. By contrast, Sam Gerard seems largely unaffected by the terrors of his work. When Kimble points a gun at Gerard's face and tells him, "I didn't kill my wife!" Gerard replies without thinking, "I don't care!" And he means it. Later in the film, Gerard has to risk a deputy's life to get a bullet into another fugitive that's taken that deputy hostage. As if to underline Gerard's emotional indifference, he expresses no regret afterwards, saying to his deputy that he doesn't "bargain" with suspects. Though these lawmen's methods may not be antithetical, their psychological capacity is, and "No Country" seems to suggest that feeling human beings in law enforcement must cut out a part of themselves to do their job over the long-term without feeling tortured by it; furthermore, the film suggests that psychologically self-limited people are the only ones who can catch the psychologically limited on the other side of the law. Gerard managed, with great success, to limit his absorption of his work; Ed Tom did not, and the years have hollowed him out.

In some ways, this notion of incompleteness of the soul suggests that the purely good, the psychologically unlimited, like Ed Tom, aren't up to defeating pure evil. Chigurh represents that evil, or Chaos; even though he seems weirdly ordered in his thinking, and though he imitates order in how carefully he goes about his business, he is Chaos. Ed Tom is Order and though Order goes through the motions, Order is always overmatched. (McCarthy highlights this duality by making their first names, Ed Tom and Anton, phonetically identical.) So as Order succumbs to Chaos in the world of "No Country", the Coens have, more persuasively than in any of their other films, managed to succinctly express their pessimistic worldview; in fact, they do it so well, that it's tempting to hope that they abandon their quirky comedies forever and continue to make movies this stripped-down and unadorned.

I'd write more but it took me long enough to come up with this, such as it is, and I've already reached my daily fatuousness quota.

Anyway, reading through that old post I wrote after I first read the novel, I saw that I included a big chunk of a scene from that book that was probably my favorite from the novel. Reading it now I see that the Coens let it stand in the film adaptation word for word, only truncating it for time. I'm just going to repost that snippet of dialogue from the book right here right now. It's just too good.

[Bell says] Do you have any notion of how goddamned crazy you are?
[Chigurh says] The nature of this conversation?
The nature of you.
Chigurh leaned back. He studied Wells. Tell me something, he said.
If the rule you followed led you to this of what use was the rule?
I don't know what you're talking about.
I'm talking about your life. In which now everything can be seen at once.
I'm not interested in your bullshit, Anton.
I thought you might want to explain yourself.
I don't have to explain myself to you.
Not to me. To yourself. I thought you might have something to say.
You go to hell.
You surprise me, that's all. I expected something different. It calls past events into question. Dont you think so?
You think I'd trade places with you?
Yes. I do. I'm here and you are there. In a few minutes I will still be here.
Wells looked out the darkened window. I know where the satchel is, he said.
If you knew where the satchel was you would have it.
I was going to have to wait until there was no one around. Till night. Two in the morning. Something like that.
You know where the satchel is.
I know something better.
What's that.
I know where it's going to be.
And where is that.
It will be brought to me and placed at my feet.
Wells wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. It wouldn't cost you anything. It's twenty minutes from here.
You know that's not going to happen. Don't you?
Wells didn't answer.
Dont you?
You go to hell.
You think you can put it off with your eyes.
What do you mean?
You think that as long as you keep looking at me you can put it off.
I don't think that.
Yes you do. You should admit your situation. There would be more dignity in it. I'm trying to help you.
You son of a bitch.
You think you wont close your eyes. But you will.

Damn but is that some great stuff.

Finally, I have a question for those who've already seen it.



Q: On the night Ed Tom goes to the motel that was the scene of the big gun battle, Ed Tom goes into a hotel room. They cut to a shot of Chigurh in a sliver if light watching Ed Tom's shadow moving about outside. Ed Tom goes in and finds nothing. Where was Chigurh? Was he in the adjacent hotel room, or was in another part of the hotel room that Ed Tom didn't look in? Or did Chigurh just disappear?

So, you know, lemme know.


Gretchen said...

I had the same question. Wish I could help you out.

harwell said... memory seems to tell me I thought he was in the adjacent room. But why nothing violent came from them being in such close proximity, I couldn't tell you. Want to know what else I can't remember? What the heck Ed Tom Bell said at the very end. I wasn't anticipating the film to conclude there and let my mind wander for a moment. Needless to say, I regret it now!

Excellent review though, Crane. I agree with pretty much everything you wrote and overall loved the film, but I'll pick a few nits while I can. For my money, I still think FARGO is probably a superior film. I thoroughly enjoyed watching these characters in NO COUNTRY, but they're not a very inviting lot. We're kept at a distance and it works for the tone of the film, but it made it a little tougher for me to embrace in the same way I've embraced FARGO (and RAISING ARIZONA, for that matter). I actually think NO COUNTRY is a lot like BLOOD SIMPLE in that way (and others). The Coens are so good at making a cold, sparse film like this that, yeah, you'd think they'd do it more often. That said, I think when they nail humor, sadness, and depth of character like they did in FARGO, it's a slightly more rewarding experience in my opinion. For me, the guys in NO COUNTRY were lacking that depth; they were mythical guys instead, representations of good, evil, and in between. It's cool stuff, just a matter of preference.

I too don't remember much about Burwell's score and I remember specifically thinking about this negatively while I was watching the film. He usually employs pretty simple themes, but more than not they stick in your craw. Makes me wonder if the Coens were purposely wanting to avoid that in NO COUNTRY. I don't know. I guess I wish they hadn't, if so. Again, FARGO's a great example of an amazingly utilized score that's impossible to miss without being so obtrusive that it becomes annoying.

Last but not least, I have to say I felt slightly cheated by the ending and not just because I hadn't read the book and didn't see it coming. Instead, I'm mostly disappointed that we never got a scene where Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones share the screen. They're great characters and great actors - I wanted to see them together. It could still end in the same unconventional manner, but give me that scene with these two men! I think simply saying that it didn't happen that way in the book is a slight cop-out. Would people still complain about the lack of shared screen time between DeNiro and Pacino in HEAT if that had been based on a book? I think probably so. Something interesting to ponder, anyway.

Oh yeah - one more thing. Another NO COUNTRY question: did they have ATMs in 1980? And if so, did they have them in El Paso, Texas? (hinesy?)

Lith said...

However, the modern, networked ATM was invented in Dallas, Texas, by Don Wetzel in 1968. Wetzel was a department head at an automated baggage-handling company called Docutel


David said...

I always thought he was hiding behind the door when Ed Tom opened it. The door opened against the adjacent wall and never moved.

So, I always wondered why he never killed Ed Tom being in the same room.

David said...

PS fargo blows.

ara the impaler said...

Fargo is awesome. Sheriff Skeletor made me snore. They should have called this move, Cormac please use some punctuation.

comradewolf said...

ed tom and anton were the same person.

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