Saturday, December 1, 2007

No Country for Old Men Review

It's been about 30 hours since I saw "No Country for Old Men" and I think I am finally ready to write my thoughts about this amazing film from the Coen Brothers. Why did it take me so long to put my thoughts down about the film? Because this film is a feast for the senses, and I needed time to digest it. It's such a pleasure that in Hollywood, where we are so often served the equivalent of a Whopper combo meal, there still exists cinematic chefs that carefully prepare and craft a delicious feast instead of being burger flippers that drop frozen potatoes into hot grease and call it good. I fear that many people who see "No Country for Old Men" will walk out of the theater feeling that they were denied their blood lust, and that a film with no easy answers will instead of sparking thought and conversation, will instead lead them to declare the film as "pretentious" or even worse, dismiss the film as a waste of time and money.

Warning, I will be writing about specific sections of the film and it is filled with spoilers. If you haven't seen the film, I suggest you wait until you have experienced it. The less you know about the film, the better. (I just finished re-reading my review and it is long and rambling, but I think there is good stuff in there. Especially when you consider that it is now 2:00 in the morning, I started this around 10:00 last night now and my brain is fried. Lisa is the writer in the family, but I don't know if she would mention Hitchcock and Rocky IV in a review for "No Country for Old Men". I'm a geek, I know. I hope you enjoy my thoughts)

I once was a film goer that believed that the more explosions, chase scenes and "cool" moments a film had, the better. I thought that any film pre 1985, black and white, or horror of horrors; have subtitles, was not a film that I wanted to spend time with. I enjoyed James Bond, Star Wars and Indiana Jones. I loved the pulp story, the easy to follow plot and eye catching special effects. But, as I began to study film at the University of Utah, I began to realize that my film palette was severely under used and under developed. I found I was losing my enjoyment of the "popcorn" films of my youth, and instead of light and fluffy cinematic confections, I longed for the nourishment that I gained from the films of Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman and Errol Morris.

When I was a child, I watched film as a child, I understood film as a child, I thought about film as a child: but when I became a man, I stopped watching childish films.

While working towards my BA in Film Studies, I am ashamed to say that I became a film snob. I was one of the "Educated Elite" that understood the difference between CINEMA and a simple movie. I was an idiot.

Over time, my viewpoint shifted, and I can't say there was any one moment of clarity, one moment where I finally understood that I could have my Star Wars cake and enjoy it as much as a Truffaut Crème brûlée, but I am so thankful that I did.


I preface my review with this lengthy explanation, because I want to be clear that I loved the 1 hour and 45 minutes of cat and mouse chase through the American Southwest that the Coen's give us, but I also loved the difficult and interesting final 15 minutes that seem to dividing audiences across the country.

Godard: "…Any great modern film which is successful is so because of a misunderstanding. Audiences like Psycho because they think Hitchcock is telling them a story. Vertigo baffles them for the same reason."

The problem is, that most viewers of "No Country" will see the film as being about Llewelyn Moss, and not realize that the film is actually about Sheriff Bell played beautifully by Tommy Lee Jones. It's easy to see how audiences misinterpret this, because the majority of the film is about Llewelyn and his attempt to escape from a killer with no remorse named Anton Chigurh. The Coen's use clever cinematic slight of hand, similar to Christopher Nolan's "The Prestige", because they show us the answer to their film from the very beginning, but the audience doesn't realize it. " won't find it because you're not really looking. You don't really want to know the secret... You want to be fooled."

We want to see "No Country" as a chase film, a high tension thriller, an escapist bit of action filmmaking. In reality, what we are watching, is a film about morality, the futility of reasoning with evil, and the realization that death is an unstoppable and uncompromising fact. Towards the end of the film, we do not see exactly what happens to Llewelyn, but we arrive at the scene moments after he is killed. We see some Mexicans running from the parking lot, jumping into a truck and speeding off. As Sheriff Bell moves toward the motel, we see the dead bodies, the blood stains and the unanswered questions. The film seemed to be building towards a mano-a-mano showdown at high noon between Chigurh and Llewelyn, and instead it appears that the Mexican drug runners shot and Killed Moss and escaped just as we the audience and Sheriff Bell arrive at the scene of the crime. If the audience feels outrage at the denial of seeing Llewelyn's final bloody moments, it proves one of the central themes of the film: That humans are naturally violent creatures, whether we want to admit it or not.

This outrage of not allowing Llewelyn and Chigurh to square off in the western town like two gunfighters in an old west film, comes from the misunderstanding that this story belongs to Bell and not Moss. Police often are not at the scene of the crime, but instead come upon the aftermath. They rarely see the bullets flying, but instead see the mess those bullets leave behind. The arrive when the puddles of blood are congealed, the rigor mortis has set in, and the story of what occurred, must be carefully mulled over and pieced together with thought and deduction. We don't see Moss die, because that is not important to the plot. This story is much larger, and not about a Vietnam vet that steals $2 million dollars and tries to escape the killer hired to get the money back. This film is about men trying to capture and contain evil in the world, and their inherent inability to do so.

In the opening monologue Sheriff Bell says "Some of the old-time sheriffs never even wore a gun. A lot of folks find that hard to believe.... You can't help but compare yourself against the old timers. Can't help but wonder how they would've operated these times...." and reveals an important insight into Bell's mindset. Throughout the film, Bell muses about the "old timers" because life then was simpler, easier, more innocent. It's a mindset many of us have when we gaze through the prism of time, and this false reality we construct makes us feel better. The old timers didn't have to deal with the pressures of the modern world. They never had to confront the evil that we face today. We conveniently forget that their Adolph Hitler is the same as our Osama Bin Laden. Evil is timeless and comes with many names, and many faces, but it is always the same. This false past is a comfort to us, because it is preferable to the reality that evil exists in the world, and no amount of reasoning, no amount of morality, no amount of hope can stop it. As the wheelchair bound Ellis says to Bell "You can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity,”

Ellis also tells Bell the gruesome story about the man (Ellis' uncle) who was murdered on his front porch, and then says that it happened in 1909. Evil has always been a part of the human experience and always will be. There is no such thing as "the good ol' days" and that good men who stand up to evil, are often killed. The Coens seem to suggest that the best a moral man can do, is to endure. We may be able to slow it down, and sometimes delay it, but evil is as inevitable as time. It will regroup, it will come back and it won't ever stop.

This is further explored when Bell is speaking to his wife about his dreams. He says " was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin' through the mountains of a night. Goin' through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and snowin', hard ridin'. Hard country. He rode past me and kept on goin'. Never said nothin' goin' by. He just rode on past and he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin' fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin' on ahead and that he was fixin' to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. Out there up ahead. And then I woke up."

Bell sees his father as a torch bearer. A man who is a beacon of light in the unending darkness. A man who will be waiting for his son in the wilderness and it's a beautiful dream. But alas, it is only a dream and Bell must return to the reality that he believes he is unable to confront. This is a land that he no longer can operate in, can no longer make sense of, can no longer believe in. The title of the film says it all "No Country for Old Men" and it's a testament to Tommy Lee's skill as an actor, to the Coen's as writer/directors and Roger Deakin's skill as cinematographer because the audience reads every bit of this in Tommy Lee's face as he gazes out across the Southwestern desert.

Some will argue that Chigurh is death or as Bell describes him "a ghost". They will argue that Chigurh was in the hotel room that Bell enters, and somehow has done the impossible and escaped, and proves he doesn't really exist. I don't agree. I do feel that Anton Chigurh seems to have some supernatural elements to him. He seems to appear at will, whether behind Woody Harrelson on the stairs, or at Stephen Root's office and then disappears from the hotel room as Sheriff Bell enters or when he disappears from behind the car as Moss walks across the street towards him, armed with a shotgun and the upper hand. How he does this, is inconsequential. It doesn't matter. It's Hitchcock's Maguffin.

"He's worried! You cut him! You hurt him! You see? You see? He's not a machine, he's a man! "

Chigurh most definitely represents evil, death, and all the horrors that man is capable of, but he is also human. If he is a figment of Bell's imagination, if he is simply a phantasm, it destroys all the thematic work the Coen's have so carefully crafted.

Their point is that evil exists. Hitler is often used as an example of "pure" evil, and he was a man of flesh and blood.

You can't barter with it. (Carla Jean Moss: You don't have to do this. Anton Chigurh: [smiles] Everybody says that. )

You can't stop it. (Chigurh to Llewelyn: I won't tell you you can save yourself, because you can't.)

By making Chigurh a man that can be wounded and bleeds, a man that can be involved in a random car accident, and a man that has this pure evil, and lacks basic humanity inside him, that's what makes him scary. That is what makes Chigurh a character that film students will study 50 years from now. If he didn't exist, we could dismiss him. The fact that evil lives, and can't be dismissed is a much harder and bleaker lesson for us to learn.

Chirgurh reminds me of Stephen King's Randall Flagg. He's a character that represents all that is evil in the world and in mankind. He is a man who seems to have supernatural powers and whose evil is ancient and unbeatable. Random acts can slow him, some men may escape him momentarily, but he collects in the end. The only difference, is that in King's world view, evil is often a bumhug, and in the Coen's it's all too real.

Sheriff Bess' dream represents the human desire to mythologize the past, and to seek solace in the belief in a simpler and more innocent world. The desire that we can somehow, someday, create a world where people don't strap bombs to themselves and then detonate their payloads into crowded marketplaces with women and children. A world where a child of 14 isn't beheaded for teaching other children to speak English. A world where two teenagers don't open fire on their fellow students in school. A world where middle aged men don't lure children into their deviant sexual fantasies through internet chat rooms. A world where a baby isn't killed because it cried too much.

We don't want to believe there is so much evil and destruction in the world. We don't want to believe that sometimes that horror and destruction seems to be as random as the outcome of a coin flip. But, then the dream ends and we wake up to reality. That's the tragedy. That's the horror.

"The Larger Bowl (A Pantoum)"

If we're so much the same like I always hear
Why such different fortunes and fates?
Some of us live in a cloud of fear
Some live behind iron gates

Why such different fortunes and fates?
Some are blessed and some are cursed
Some live behind iron gates
While others only see the worst

Some are blessed and some are cursed
The golden one or scarred from birth
While others only see the worst
Such a lot of pain on the earth

The golden one or scarred from birth
Somethings can never be changed
Such a lot of pain on this earth
It's somehow so badly arranged

Somethings can never be changed
Some reasons will never come clear
It's somehow so badly arranged
If we're so much the same like I always hear

Some are blessed and some are cursed
The golden one or scarred from birth
While others only see the worst
Such a lot of pain on the earth

EDIT- After reading Dennis' review on his blog and his comments on my review, I had a few more ideas I wanted to put down in my blog.

I was thinking about what an interesting triangle that Moss, Bell and Chigurh make.  Anton represents evil, Bell represents morality and hope and Moss represents the modern man torn between the two.  But, as with all Coen Brother's films, it isn't that easy.  Bell is supposed to be our tough Texas lawman.  Our hero.  Our courageous cowboy with the white hat that saves the day and rides into the sunset at the end.  Bell cannot live up to this idealized representation because he is man.  He is flawed.  He never draws his gun until the hotel room where he belives Chigurh is hiding.  Earlier in the film, when he and his deputy travel to Moss' mobile home to investigate we get this section of dialogue:

"Wendell: We goin' in?
Ed Tom Bell: Gun out and up.
Wendell: [Wendell draws his pistol] What about yours?
Ed Tom Bell: I'm followin' you."

He is afraid of tapping into that inner monster.  He doesn't want to resort to violence that may be the result of him drawing his gun.  It's there within him, but he chooses to not access it.  This point is subtly reinforced when a few minutes later, the police find a bottle of milk that is still sweating on Moss' table.  Bell sits on the couch, in the exact position we saw Chigurh earlier, and the camera then cuts to his reflection in the television set.  Again, perfectly mirroring the same shot we saw with Chigurh.  The Coens seem to be suggesting that they are a reflection of each other, the other side of the same coin if you will.  

Just as Bell is not 100% honorable and brave, we see that Chigurh is not 100% evil and destructive.  When he is questioning the woman about where Moss works, and she refuses, it seems that her death is imminent.  In one scene Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) tells Moss that even if he gives Chigurh the money, he will still kill Moss because he (Moss) inconvenienced him (Anton).  This woman is not being helpful to Chigurh, and it seems as if he will kill her for that, but we hear a toilet flush off screen and Anton walks out the door.  Later, after he is injured in the car accident, he insists the boy take $100 for his shirt, and tells the boy "You never saw me" and leaves the boys alone.

Chigurh and Bell have dominant sides (light and dark) but Moss is the mix of the two.  He coldly tells the wounded man at the beginning of the film that he doesn't have any water, and then leaves him to die.  That night, his conscience gets the better of him and he fills a plastic milk container and travels back to the crime scene in order to help the man.  That act is what dooms him.  It's not his greed, it's not his the dark side of his soul, it's his care and conscience. 

Bell is the past - Law and order

Moss is the present - greed and self serving

Chigurh is the future - dark and dangerous and bearing down with fury and might.

1 comment:

Dennis said...

That was a great and insightful review, and it's sparked the wheels of creativity and pondering to life in my head once again.

Because whether you realize it or not, I think you helped me come to terms with the once scene I couldn't quite make heads or tails of--if you'll pardon the expression. :P

The scene where Bell returns to the motel and feels certain that Chigurh is on the other side of the door. Prior to that moment, we never see Bell draw his gun. I wonder how many times Bell had ever drawn his gun during his tenure as Sherrif. My guess is not many, and he hated doing it each and every time. (I read a little about the plot of the book, and it says that Bell was indeed a WWII vet who got the Bronze Star for heroism, but was always ashamed of the actions that earned him that recognition and was always trying to atone for them.)

This scene was the old west moment. It was "High Noon." It was the guy in the white hat about to square off against the guy with the black hat--or black hair, as the case may be. Bell hated the idea of pulling his gun on another human being, even someone as evil as Chigurh, because he probably believes that such an act only serves to further the cycle of violence.

But in this case, it was necessary. Evil cannot be allowed to continue. Good men cannot do nothing. They must at least make a stand now and then.

So he draws his gun and opens the door.

And what does he see? Himself. Or, at least, his shadow on the wall, in the classic "draw" pose, facing back at him. His darker side, looking him back in the face. "Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of man? The Shadow knows..."

It's exactly like the scene in Empire Strikes Back where Yoda tells Luke to go into the cave. "What's in there?" Luke asks.

"Only what you take with you," comes the answer. He goes in, sees Vader, but when he cuts off Vader's head, it is his own face that materializes inside.

It really bothered me that Chigurh wasn't in the room at first. Was he behind the door, and if so, why not just kill Bell and leave? He certainly had no qualms about stepping over random bodies to achieve his goals. Or was Chigurh even in the room at all? Was that reflection in the lock just Bell's imagination?

So where was Chigurh? Like the question about the money, I don't think it matters. I think the point of that scene was that it was Bell's breaking point. He faced the enemy, and it was indeed, us. He went eyeball to eyeball with himself, and he blinked. My guess is that he saw the young 21 year old soldier he was, doing things in wartime that he never dreamed people could or should do, and he decided right there, on the edge of that bed, that it was all too much.

In that sense, Chigurh represents that evil tendency that we all have. The natural man. The heart of darkness. We all want to be Obi Wan, and for the most part we are. But there's probably a little more Vader in us than we care to admit. And every so often, we hop in the boat with our inner Kurtz and head up river.