(The Spoiler’s Creed is in full effect.)
No Country for Old Men
My first thought after watching Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men — amid groans from others in the theater — was that I understood why some people hate it.
This was prompted by something I’d read earlier that day, an item from Roger Ebert’s Movie Answer Man column:
“I went to see No Country for Old Men with a group of my friends. I was absolutely fascinated and riveted by the film and think it is the best film I have seen thus far this year. My very good friend, who also happens to be a very smart guy, thought the film was terrible. I was shocked. Should I debate the merits of the film with him? Is it even worth debating such a wonderful film when the person you are debating with has no appreciation for it, and does it pose a risk to the friendship?”
It’s a fair and fascinating question, but Ebert’s reply was unfortunately glib:
“As Louis Armstrong instructs us, ‘There are some folks that, if they don’t know, you can’t tell ’em.’”
I might accept that dismissive response if he were talking about Transformers or some tony, repressed period romance; we all have things that we just don’t like, no matter how well they’re done.
But No Country for Old Men subverts audience expectations at just about every turn, and despite its considerable pleasures and a straightforward chase-the-drug-money plot, it’s a willfully difficult film. In that context, why wouldn’t you want to argue about it? It’s the rare movie that’s open enough to foster malleable opinion; thoughtful people who dislike it initially can be won over if spurred to look at it differently.
Five days later, I’m still not sure how I feel about it. I enjoyed the experience but was baffled by the conclusion. We’ve made our peace — a little — but I’m still uncertain where I’ll end up on it.
The movie is framed by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who begins it with a voiceover and ends it with the recitation of a dream. I’d be lying if I said I followed what he said; in both cases, I was mesmerized by the rhythm and tone of the actor’s readings.
Bell is almost tangential to the core story of No Country, which concerns Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a trailer-park resident who finds serious money at the scene of a drug deal gone bad, and Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a mercenary on the trail of the cash. Bell is largely a bystander, a witness to a lot of messes but only briefly in the presence of either of the other main characters.
Llewelyn is killed well into the movie — but long before it’s over. I imagine that the shock that attends his death is kin to that generated by Psycho when it first came out.
And the remainder of No Country offers no conventional closure. The audience anticipates a showdown, a battle of wits, between Bell and Chigurh, and the Coens set it up, but they instead give us two anticlimactic scenes that have no obvious connection to what preceded them.
Those are just the big challenges to liking as a whole No Country for Old Men — faithful, says Bride of Culture Snob, to the source novel by Cormac McCarthy.
Beyond that, I wouldn’t begrudge any viewer a moment or two of confusion about whether that body does indeed belong to Llewelyn. And I certainly understand how people might believe that Chigurh let Llewelyn’s wife live; the evidence to the contrary is delivered by the Coens with a gorgeously subtle gesture that’s easy to miss. The audience doesn’t see Chigurh shoot the woman. It doesn’t hear the gunfire from a distance. It sees him exit a house and check the bottoms of his shoes.
Other touches will go unnoticed by most folks but will still have an unsettling effect: the dearth of music, for instance, and the way a key bit of deduction by Bell is delivered through a story and without the typical a-ha shot.
And then there’s Chigurh, a great villain in part because he’s so difficult to peg. It’s not merely that Chigurh’s undiluted evil and that fabulously awful helmet of hair make it impossible to empathize with him. Moral considerations aside, it’s doubtful that he’s even a human being. He is almost supernaturally resourceful, and unless you read a lot into a tossed-off comment about him being a ghost (I’m receptive to the idea), the mystery of his methods will open up plot holes as frequently as his weapons spill blood.
The case with the money has a transponder, and Chigurh has a receiver, but that doesn’t explain the man’s startlingly accurate homing instincts. If he feels some need to kill you — or, if you’re lucky, to tie your fate to the flip of a coin — he’ll find you, and the Coens give no indication that he’s engaging any investigative skills.
The audience learns all it ever will about Chigurh at the outset; when we first meet him, he kills a deputy while handcuffed. He then puts a clean hole through a man’s skull with an air gun.
It’s the blank spaces — what we don’t know about him — that intrigue and frustrate the audience. Who is he? Who does the ’do? What could have created this monster?
Even after spending time with Llewelyn, we don’t have a firm grasp of him, either, but we know he has more of a heart than Chigurh. Feeling guilty about leaving someone to die, he returns to the place where he found the drug money to give water to a wounded man. While belatedly compassionate, this decision can only lead to bad things. And it does.
On further consideration, though, it probably prolongs his and his wife’s lives. He gets a glimpse of what he’s up against, and if he didn’t, he would be an easier target.
He ends up a worthy foe, a harder kill for Chigurh than the “professionals” he dispatches without effort. Llewelyn is tougher because he’s unpredictable, and we root for him as the everyman against a seemingly unstoppable opponent.
The audience is invested, then, not in the characters but in the contest. While the Coens’ Fargo was populated with colorful, detailed idiots and one sensible police chief, the three major players in No Country for Old Men are sharp if not wise.
There’s one other comparison with the brothers’ 1996 film that’s instructive. Humor streaks No Country for Old Men, but unlike in Fargo, it’s not the primary purpose, and it’s not of the mocking, superior variety.
All of this contributes to a movie that — no matter your final judgment — is easy to enjoy. There’s also the Spaniard Bardem, playing a man whose first tongue is clearly not English; his pronunciations and deliveries are filled with odd pauses and sounds not native to the language, giving his mostly senseless dialogue a striking weight.
That’s contrasted with the casual vernacular poetry of Jones, which is contrasted with a nearly invisible performance by Brolin (and I mean that as a compliment). To those turns you can add Woody Harrelson, playing a mercenary out to get the mercenary who’s confident and competent without being particularly bright, or who at least projects that he’s not very bright. The actor has a glorified cameo, but he creates a character through a drawn-out deliberateness; he appears to be thinking about thinking about something important.
But does all this constitute a coherent film? Is it meaningful? Or is it merely a collection of disparate gratifications?
At The House Next Door, Matt Zoller Seitz argues against the prevalent moral and political readings, saying that the movie is about a failure to recognize inevitable cycles:
“No Country’s message, such as it is (the Coens aren’t message-y directors), is not about Where We Are Now. It’s simpler and more encompassing, less reminiscent of reportage or the editorial page than the admonitions of a philosopher or court jester: Get over yourselves, Americans, and everyone else, too. Look beyond yourselves and the time you live in. What is happening to the United States and the world — and every individual — is a variant of a dynamic that recurs throughout personal and political history, as predictable as the end of one year and the start of the next. What you got ain’t nothing new.”
I think he’s ascribing to No Country the lesson that the new always obliterates the old, a function of the old’s twin blind spots of comfort and nostalgia:
“Bell’s belief that he lives in a time of fixed realities and diminished potential is indicative of the mentality that makes a dominant culture vulnerable to aggressive revisionists. To the people Bell hopes to stop, the future is a wide-open road. The status quo’s defenders are speed bumps.”
That seems a stretch. It has to work too hard to contain the movie, particularly the car accident of the penultimate scene. The strain of the explication shows with a closing consideration of Chigurh:
“[H]e enters the story in handcuffs and leaves it bloody and broken-boned, trudging through the suburbs on foot.”
This is a lovely sentence, but it doesn’t really fit the interpretation, and its defeatist implications contradict what we know about the character: His captivity, and his injuries, are short-lived.
I wonder if No Country for Old Men might be simpler still: We’re all in over our heads.
That’s obvious with Llewelyn as soon as he takes the money. It’s apparent with Bell when we recognize the ruthlessness of Chigurh. It’s apparent to Bell when he figures out that he’s no longer cut out for police work, and that he’s not yet suited for retirement.
And here’s where that puzzling traffic accident comes into play. Chigurh has to this point appeared invulnerable; even when Llewelyn shoots him in the leg — a nearly miraculous feat, all things considered — he quickly acquires the means to heal himself. And because he’s a more skilled hunter than anybody else, it seems unlikely that somebody could purposely do worse to him.
The car wreck hints at Chigurh’s weakness and mortality, even though it doesn’t kill him. He survives by chance, not because of some extraordinary aptitude. (We have no evidence of Chigurh’s superior defensive driving.)
You can be the baddest-ass killer on the whole planet — smart, wily, brutal, capricious, without conscience, and with an unerring nose for the requisite trouble. And you can be oh so careful, tying up loose ends and obeying stoplights. (The Coens emphasize that Chigurh is mindful of traffic signals.) But you can’t stop some asshole from running a red light and plowing into your car. Dumb luck can kill you, and there’s nothing you can do to prepare for it.
All this casting about for meaning might seem pointless with a movie this slippery, but the search for substance and import in No Country is warranted. The Coen brothers might not be “message-y,” but Fargo was neatly, accurately reduced to Marge Gunderson’s rebuke: “And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know.”
And while some movies don’t lend themselves to moral or cultural interpretation — they aren’t about anything significant — No Country for Old Men demands, with its curious denouement, a framework within which to process and understand it.
If it wrapped up its plot shortly after the death of Llewelyn, it could have been purely suspenseful. Instead, the Coen brothers are begging you to reconsider what you’ve watched.
I did, and I’m still not sure what I saw.