12/28/07

No Country for Old Men

Cormac McCarthy's novel No Country for Old Men was published in 2005. The film adaptation directed by Joel and Ethan Cohen was released in 2007.



A meanness in this world
No Country for Old Men, a story of extreme violence, set in a vast and quiet landscape, told in a deliberate and unadorned manner, reminds me of the title track from Springsteen's Nebraska (1982).

Both works begin with a glimpse into the mind of a killer. The song's narrator says, "From the town of Lincoln, Nebraska / with a sawed-off .410 on my lap / through to the badlands of Wyoming / I killed everything in my path." No Country begins with Sheriff Bell's recollection of a nineteen-year-old murderer. "He told me that he had been plannin to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. Said that if they turned him out he'd do it again."

In these cases, murder seems to be end, not a means. Both characters lack remorse, and neither have a discernible goal beyond killing. When questioned about his motives, Springsteen's character says, "I guess there's just a meanness in this world." McCarthy's killer admits his actions didn't involve any passion at all.

Interestingly enough, both are minutes from execution when their stories are told. If these works ended there, one might be given the impression that 'good' can indeed conquer 'evil.' Thankfully, Nebraska continues to explore morally challenging situations (see Highway Patrolman), and No Country's embodiment of evil, Anton Chigurh, is last seen, not on his way to the electric chair, but shuffling down a residential street.

four faces
Left to right: Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), Carla Jean Moss (Kelly Macdonald)

Call it
Chigurh doesn’t behave like someone driven by greed, lust, or revenge. You can find better examples of desire-driven bad guys in Fargo.

Carson Wells, No Country's character most familiar with Chigurh, says he is "a peculiar man. You could even say that he has principles.” Vaguely demonstrated, Chigurh’s principles, along with his motives and any hint of his origins or future plans, are opaque at best.

Luck factors into his actions as he uses a coin to determine life or death for some he encounters. Chigurh seems to be part of the force alluded to in Sheriff Bell’s opening narration, including these lines that correspond to Chigurh’s first appearance on screen:
The crime you see now, it's hard even to take its measure. Not that I'm afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand.
More than a threat to his own life, it’s what Bell can’t understand or protect others from that wears him down. As sheriff, he's obligated to ponder the deeds of Chigurh and others like him. Eventually, those details are more than he can bear; he feels overmatched, perhaps justifiably.

When evil can't be eliminated through arrest and execution it takes on an elemental quality. Chigurh acts more like a force of nature—destructive, unstoppable, and incomprehensible—than a typical screen villain. Taking in the entire story, he’s not the only destructive force at work. Violence in No Country builds and dissipates like a series of storms and we see how some men, moved by greed, voluntarily walk into a storm, fueling the tempest. Others, relatively innocent, are caught out by chance; some are swept away and some survive through luck or cunning perhaps to be done-in by storms that follow (see Llewelyn's death).

Perpetual vulnerability is a primitive feeling, one that prompts Bell to retreat. The film moves quickly over the sheriff's retirement, but the novel clearly describes his state of mind. “It was defeat. It was being beaten. More bitter to him than death.”

You can’t stop what’s coming
Does an ending where evil persists make a work pessimistic? Perhaps. It’s upsetting to see such crime go unchecked, even in fiction. (Can you imagine Crime and Punishment as simply Crime?) No Country is not morality tale or a story of redemption, though. It's about a man who lacks the ability to deal with contemporary evil. The title suggests Bell’s age has something to do with this. His models, the “old-timers” mentioned in the opening narration, including his father and grandfather, have become obsolete in a way. As discouraging as the idea of aging beyond ones effectiveness may be, I’m left with three not-entirely pessimistic thoughts.

First, the notion that age diminishes us is just pragmatic, especially in certain fields, and we would be wise to acknowledge it. Uncle Ellis, a former deputy who worked with Bell’s grandfather, provides this prospective from his wheelchair, “Whatcha got ain't nothin new. This country's hard on people. You can't stop what's coming. It ain't all waiting on you. That’s vanity.”

Second, resistance to evil is an ongoing struggle. Each generation must dedicate itself anew. Successful or not, younger men like Llewelyn are better equipped to fight the likes of Chigurh. The realization that older generations can’t protect us forever shouldn’t be seen as discouraging; it should be taken as a call to action.

And lastly, the professional techniques of the old-timers may be inadequate for today (“some of them never even wore a gun”), but their personal example can continue to provide comfort to the most discouraged soul long after they're gone. No Country doesn’t end with Chigurh’s escape. In the film's the final scene Sheriff Bell describes two dreams about his father. If Chigurh's actions left Bell confused and defeated, these dreams signal that hope remains. Watch this:

"And then I woke up."

Chigurh stirs in us primitive fears of being vulnerable and hunted. Bell's second dream evokes a different kind of primitive feeling--a state of mind where light and warmth are significant comforts against "all that dark and all that cold." McCarthy's story brings us back to basics. Life may be nasty, brutish and short, but that shouldn't prevent us from caring for those within reach.

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Most of this post focuses on the No Country's beginning and end. What about all that action in between? It’s mostly people doing cruel and unusual things for money. It’s probably not a coincidence that Bell’s first dream about loosing some money is all-but-dismissed in the scene embedded above. In other words, the struggle for money isn't where the action is or ought to be.


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Charlie Rose interviews Ethan Cohen, Joel Cohen, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin about No Country for Old Men.


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The title for McCarthy's novel comes from Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium."


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Did you recognize Kelly Macdonald as Diane from Trainspotting? Given that role, her part in No Country, and her spot in the up-coming film-adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's Choke, she is becoming the queen of films based on books boys like. Long live the queen.

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