Sunday, February 26, 2012

Disappointment at the Oscars or: Why I Still Don't Like No Country For Old Men

With the Oscars airing today, there's a good chance the movie I'm rooting for (The Tree of Life) will loose to something else, like The Artist or The Help. Which gets me thinking about recent Oscar wins that have rubbed me the wrong way. One notable instance is Crash's 2005 win over worthier fare, like Brokeback Mountain and Capote. Another is Shakespeare in Love's defeat of Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. But the one that still smarts the most is No Country for Old Men's victory at the expense of There Will Be Blood in 2008.


Because from day one, No Country for Old Men has struck me as overly cynical and even contemptuous of its audience. There Will Be Blood is cynical, too, but it also has moments in which its cynical veneer threatens to crack.

Take, for instance, the scene between Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) and Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), where Daniel is on his knees before Eli's congregation, confessing, "I've abandoned my child! I've abandoned my boy!" Director Paul Thomas Anderson milks some humor from the scene, but it's also heartbreakingly sincere. For a moment, as Daniel's voice catches on the word "boy," we see him as just a man, not a businessman, and even a little bit as a father, hard as that is to imagine.

This is just one example, though. There's also that moment prior to this, where he sends his son away, refusing to look at the train as it pulls out of the station. And then there are the tears he sheds later on after killing the man he'd believed to be his brother. As envisioned by Anderson and portrayed by Day-Lewis, Daniel Plainview is a force to be reckoned with, but also a fragile human being.

Now, consider No Country for Old Men.

Let me first say that I can't fault the Coens for anything on a formal level. I love the movie's slightly over-saturated cinematography, and its careful attention to minute sounds, like the whisper of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) removing his socks after a shootout, or the way we can hear the unmanned telephone ringing downstairs when Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) calls the front desk at the Hotel Eagle. And of course, there's Bardem's excellent performance. You won't hear any complaints from me there.

As great as these aspects are, though, I've never been able to look at the two principal characters as enormously complex. They've always struck me more as archetypes. Archetypes can be powerful, don't get me wrong, but they rarely have complex motivations. They're more like symbols that exist to carry out a function, or in this case, figures designed to carry the plot from one point to another.

Why, then, does Llewelyn steal the drug money? Because he needs the cash, but also because that's what happens in the book. The better question might be, why doesn't he ever give up on the money? After a certain point, any sane man would have to admit, this just ain't worth it. So what are his motivations for dragging that blessed suitcase with him long after he knows what he stands to lose? Beats me, but it rings false.

And why does Chigurh go after him? Well, it's his job, partly, but it would also seem that he just loves killing. He's symbolic of evil, of course, not to mention fate, destiny, and what-have-you. But he's also just doing what he does in the book, too.

The character I have the hardest time with, though, is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who seems like he does more complaining than anything else. In Cormac McCarthy's book, Bell is more active. He seems genuinely intent on finding both Llewelyn and Chigurh before matters get worse. In the movie, though, he seems to have a great love of sitting. He still does police work, but the tone feels dramatically different. It's like he's just going through the motions. That's part of what gives the movie an extra-cynical edge. Sure, evil things happen and there's not much we can do about it--but if we never try, then what should we expect? Bell, as brought to life by the Coens and Jones, doesn't seem all that interested in doing anything but sipping coffee and reading the newspaper.

Even more bothersome than Bell, though, is the way the Coens chose to resolve Llewelyn's story. In both the book and the movie, his death occurs "offscreen," but in the movie it occurs without warning. Our only foreshadowing is a seemingly arbitrary conversation between Llewelyn and a woman hanging out by the pool of the motel he's staying at. During their brief encounter, she asks him what he's looking for. He says, "Just lookin' for what's comin'." The woman responds, "Yeah, no one ever sees that." And in the next scene, he's dead.

Compare this with the book, where McCarthy spends seventeen pages on a conversation between Llewelyn and a hitchhiker he's picked up. Their conversation adds depth to Llewelyn's character and brings his arc to a satisfying close. We feel how firmly committed he is to his fate. The scene the Coens give us leaves us hanging, expecting more. Thematically, this might work, but it also makes his death that much more random, and hence, more meaningless. His arc doesn't feel complete, and so all that time we've spent with him feels like it was for nothing.

That leads me to feel that the Coens don't quite respect us. Killing him offscreen is fine. Denying us a final shootout between him and Chigurh is fine. But I can't stand the feeling that our time with him was a waste, and that he's learned nothing about himself during his journey. It makes him feel that much flatter, that much more like a pawn. The Coens would rather have us feel the cynicism of McCarthy's story than some sense of purpose or resolution--that would imply that life means something.

But what about the ending? Doesn't that point toward hope?

It does, but only in the feeblest sense. More than anything, it establishes a gnostic dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual. In this life, there is only cruelty. If there is hope, it's in the next life. But this is a falsehood. While life is painful, there is also beauty now and hope now. No Country for Old Men would have us believe that there is only hope later, as there's no meeting point at all between the hope in Bell's dream and the misery of "real life." They're like parallel lines that run into eternity without intersecting. Hope never impinges on the present. It's, well, a dream.

Think I've gotten it all wrong? By all means, let me know you've perspective in the comments. I am just one man, after all.

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff, Andrew. I actually prefer There Will Be Blood to No Country, and I think your description of the baptism scene is dead on and something a lot of people miss when watching that sequence—there is a moment of grace and pain in DLL's performance. But onto No Country, which was one of my favorite Coens of the last decade, along with The Man Who Wasn't There.

    I think your reading of Lewellyn as an archetype is a great point. We don't get his interior monologue like we get in McCarthy's novel (which is someone slim but still there), and that hitchhiker sequence is probably his most humanizing scene, and makes his death all the more sober. Instead, we get the silence (and a lot of silence!) and the parallels between hunter and hunted are drawn out to make them seem like two sides of a coin.

    There's two things I want to strongly combat you on, however. The first and smaller one is Lewellyn's motivation to keep going for the money. For that, I'm going to simply respond with a clip from a different Coen Brothers film:

    The biggest point i want to take on though is because I think their is an essential shift between the McCarthy novel and the film, which is our protagonists, who I believe is Sheriff Bell. While Lewellyn and Chigrugh have their battle out, Bell is the one trying to stop the whole mess, always one (if not two) steps behind. He seems much older than he does in the novel. He is certainly going through the motions, but its because he can no longer operate on the same level as the next generation, like the generation before him couldn't understand his current one (consider the conversation about how his father died).

    You chose to focus on the word cynicism here; I'd call it fatalism. "You can't stop what's coming," Chigrugh says, I believe more than once (or at least it was on all the posters). And certainly it is their fatalistic attitude—those who do bad get punished, the old lose their place in society—that drives the action. Sure, there is some uncertainty: sometimes the coin flips the wrong way, sometimes a car comes out of nowhere—but nothing can stop the inevitable outcome of the Coen's universe, where everything fits into gears and clockwork; no uncertainty here.

    Sure this becomes somewhat cynical, but most of the Coen films are certainly cynical (The first that pops to mind is the final, hilarious ending to Burn After Reading). I've never read the monologue that Bell gives at the end particularly hopeful, as much as it asks us to consider what to do when there is not much we can affect. We can only carry our own fire, and try and bring it as far as possible. When we stray off the path, or take someone else's fire, fate finds a way.

    Thanks for this post; although we obviously disagree I quite enjoyed reading it and considering my own thoughts on it!