saw things so much clearer, once you... were in, my... rearview mirror.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

No Choice for Anyone: "No Country for Old Men"

What makes "No Country for Old Men" a masterpiece is the way in which the directors, Joel and Ethan Coen, are able to balance - or rather marry - a riveting plot with an underlying existential conundrum. The film conjures the same feelings of despondency as does for instance Albert Camus' pop success, The Stranger (the story of a man who's fate and ultimate demise is beyond his control). Yet, No Country is also undeniably a brilliantly suspenseful thriller, full of nail biting narrow escapes and brutally violent stand offs. Of course, one may like to credit Cormac McCarthy, the author of the novel the film is adapted from. Yet in this case, while I doubt anyone would deny him credit, the Coens' have achieved something that transcends the original work anyway (which I must admit I haven't read). No matter the quality of an adaptation, as in for instance the recent Truman Capote novel based film, "In Cold Blood", the keen viewer is still left feeling as though there may be have been something missing; a desire to go back to the source material. Not in this case, No Country stands firmly on its own.

No Country takes place somewhere in southwestern Texas straddling the Mexican border, sometime before now, for no particular reason at all. Well actually, I'd like to think there was a reason it isn't now, namely that it doesn't matter when - probably one of the main points of the film. The Texan country is wide and barren, a hot dry place where all sorts of mischief might freely pass under the watchful eye of the law - and it does. The plot revolves around three men, one whom has the good fortune [sic] of discovering just such mischief, which brings him into possession of quite a lot of money and quite a bit more trouble, another who represents the law in them those parts and the last who's a little more complicated or um, insane.

Llewelyn Moss, realized by Josh Brolin, is the (un)lucky jackpot winner. While on a hunt and tracking a wounded animal, he stumbles upon some unexpected blood, then some unexpected bodies, then some unexpected millions. Too soon for Llewelyn's own good, the sociopathic bounty hunter Anton Chigurh is on his trail to retrieve those ill gotten goods. Anton is a beast of man who kills men like beasts, with a method of slaughter preferred by cattle ranchers, a bolt to the brain - or if the subject is out of reach, a large silenced shotgun that’s probably used to stop charging rhinos, quietly. Javier Bardem, who's previous brilliant achievement was a gay poet in "Before Night Falls", brings Anton to life, if one would consider Anton to be alive at all. Lawman Tommy Lee Jones, er... Ed Tom Bell certainly doesn't when he aptly describes Anton as a "ghost". Sheriff Bell is a little late on the scene of the crime - at least for Llewelyn's sake that is - but it doesn't take long for him to catch on to what's happened. In his own reserved and all too relaxed Texan way, he too joins the fray. From there, No Country steamrolls along its inevitable track towards a disturbing conclusion.

There are of course several other characters that populate this country or rather, fine acting talent that rounds out the cast. There’s Llewelyn's pretty, little subservient wife Carla Jean played perfectly reservedly by Kelly Macdonald, and the big man in charge of all these dirty dealings, played by Stephen Root (who's acting credits are extensive to say the least, remember Milton from Office Space); he's the guy who hires Anton and later Anton's replacement, Carson Wells, played by the great Woody Harrelson. I mention these characters because for one thing, while minor with respect to the plot they are still fabulous. But also because another trait that makes No Country such a great adaptation is the purposeful use of characters. There isn’t a superfluous one in the film. As brief as his appearance may be, Carson, for example, plays the crucial role of Anton's foil. Not in the sense that Carson is some nice guy, he's a bounty hunter too. It's just that unlike Anton, Carson is a man of reason, a man you can cut a deal with. He's also one of the few people who knows who the hell Anton is. In one of the more comical moments in the film, Carson visits Llewelyn in a Mexican hospital and asks Llewelyn if he knows who's after him. Llewelyn admits to having seen "him" to which Carson replies, "You've seen him? And you're not dead? Huh." Even in this somewhat minor role, Mr. Harrelson's character is responsible for providing the viewer insight into Anton's character, an insight that is nearly impossible to attain otherwise. Carson makes the viewer properly scared of Anton.

So what is it that makes Anton so damn scary? Well, he's a sociopathic killer, and he's a big dude with a weird haircut, and he doesn't talk much, but that’s not it. What makes Anton so frightening is actually something that perhaps we’d all like to be, he’s principled. Anton is not a passionate killer, he’s a very discriminate killer. He seems to believe in some sense of justice and comeuppance, albeit in a way that seems completely inaccessible common reason, and in the execution of his business, Anton is completely unwavering. Whatever the motivation for his actions, that is perhaps the most frightening aspect of his character, his abandonment to fate. Using an analogy popular in eastern philosophies, Anton is like an arrow released from the bow. He has been aimed then fired and now sails in direct path with no other thought or motivation but the eventual arrival at his target. People, places, cars, rivers, pleading victims, they’re all simply obstacles or a means to an end. In this respect Anton almost reminds one of a movie monster, like Michael Myers from “Halloween”, slowly stumbling towards the hapless victim who wriggles away in a futile attempt to escape his fate.

Of course fate is the notion that lies just beneath the surface of the plot. Each of the three main men in No Country seem to represent different relationships with fate. While Anton runs around playing grim reaper, embracing fate and wielding it like a weapon, Llewelyn seems to be completely oblivious to it if not outright fighting against it, and Ed Tom seems to be - after many long years – finally coming to terms with it. From the start of the film Llewelyn is at fate’s mercy, stumbling upon the money and entering a conflict that is completely out of his control. When he finally meets his fate, it’s in a way that, like the money, comes unexpectedly.

For Ed Tom, fate isn’t so much a matter of destiny but rather what is par for the course. Ed is the third generation of lawmen in his family, trapped by fate to follow in the footsteps of his forbearers. Ed Tom is approaching retirement both due to his age and it seems also due to a growing disillusionment with his role in life. He is the character most poignantly suffering from the aforementioned existential conundrum - what’s the point of fighting all these evils when they only seem to pile up all the more? During the film, he repeatedly shares stories about freakish criminal acts he finds amusing or his wonderment at the absurd violence he sees around him. Ed Tom, like many older men, finds himself astounded at the savagery of the times and romanticizing the good old days. He finally comes to terms with these feelings though, realizing that while times have changed, they haven’t for the better or the worse. All the lines may different, but the song remains the same. At the close of the film, Ed reluctantly shares a dream with his wife over breakfast that completely captures these feelings. In the dream he follows his father through a sparse cold country in the dark of night but looses sight of him. At the end of the dream, he’s not concerned though; instead confident that he’ll find his father waiting for him before a lit fire.

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