Wednesday, October 1, 2014
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
(November 2007, U.S.)
Some of my favorite laughs at the movies have come from the films of Joel and Ethan Cohen. They started with Nicolas Cage in RAISING ARIZONA (1987) and continued with Jeff Bridges in THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998) and George Clooney in INTOLERABLE CRUELTY (2003). Through their entire film career, though, I've always preferred their cinematic themes of fate, conscience, and circumstance that have been previously explored in films like BLOOD SIMPLE (1984) and FARGO (1996). NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN seems to take said themes to its maximum level with not only violence and survival, but with an undeniable level of ambiguity at the end that left audiences stunned and puzzled.
This film may be very well identified as a neo-Western thriller. It takes place in 1980, though, so don't expect the traditional cliché of horses, six-guns, saloons and hitching posts that many classic westerns deliver along with the likes of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. This film tells the story of an ordinary man to whom chance delivers a cash fortune that doesn't belong to him, and the ensuing cat-and-mouse drama as the paths of three men intertwine in the desert landscape of West Texas; essentially it's a tale of the hunter and the hunted. Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin), while hunting pronghorn in the desert, comes across the bloody aftermath of a drug deal gone awry. He finds two million dollars in a satchel that he takes to his trailer home. After dark, for no other reason than sheer guilt of conscience, he returns to the site with water for a dying Mexican at the scene of the crime, but is chased away by two men in a truck and forced to abandon his vehicle. When he gets back home he grabs the cash, sends his wife Carla Jean (played by Kelly Macdonald) away and makes his way to a motel in the next Texas county where he hides the satchel in the air duct of his room. Unbeknownst, the money is tagged with a transponder frequency and he's being tracked by Anton Chigurh (played chillingly by Javier Bardem), perhaps the most frightening of evil men ever to grace the big screen. Anton is ruthless, violent and merciless and he does it all with this rather quiet level of charm and integrity (if its even possible for a ruthless killer to actually have any integrity!). His stone cold silence and subtlety are what's most terrorizing about his personality both as a killer and a man. As a killer, death walks hand in hand with him and he actually believes in a (twisted) set of moral standards in that when he's decided that he must kill someone, he goes through with it to the end, even if he's already achieved an alternate goal. Using a captive bolt pistol to not only shoot his victims, he also uses it to shoot the locks out of doors, gaining him access to any room he chooses. This, in fact, only strengthens the horror of simply not being safe from this man behind any locked door. As a man, there's also a strange level of reason that exists within him in that every once in a while he's willing to give an intended victim the chance to live by having them call heads or tails on a coin toss. As we watch a particular convenience store merchant win his right to life on a coin toss, only we and the killer truly know the nature of what's going on and just how lucky that man is to be alive. Even Anton tells him not to put the quarter in his pocket because it can now be considered his "lucky quarter".
As a traditional chase film of sorts, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN shows us just how scary the chase can be, on foot and on the road. We're dealing with two determined men; one who simply wants to survive and keep the money he's found and one who'll stop at nothing to kill the victim and those he loves. But even as an intended victim, Llewelyn Moss is not exactly a helpless pussy! Unlike other victims who beg for their lives by telling Anton that he "doesn't have to do this", Llewelyn knows how to fight back with both words and bullets, inflicting bloody pain of his own. It's tragic, actually, because despite the fact that we're lead to believe along the way that the victim just may survive this nightmare, it simply doesn't turn out that way in the end.
Okay, so now it's time to talk about the rather existential ending and what it all really means. As the righteous sheriff of this film, the character of Ed Tom Bell (played by Tommy Lee Jones) is the good guy lawman we get to know throughout the film and see for the final sequence, as well. Retired by the end, he shares two dreams with his wife (played by Tess Harper), both involving his deceased father. In the first dream, he lost some money that his father had given him. In the second, he and his father were riding horses through a snowy mountain pass. His father, who was carrying fire in a horn, quietly rode by with his head down, "going on ahead, and fixin' to make a fire" in the surrounding dark and cold. Bell knew that when he got there his father would be waiting. Then he woke up. So what does that mean and why does the film end there?? Well, one of the first things we can clearly see is that NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN does not give us the traditional conclusion of confrontation between good and evil. We can easily deduce that Carla Jean was killed by Anton for refusing to call the coin toss. The film makes it clear that Llewelyn is killed off-screen in an ambush with a group of Mexicans in El Paso and Anton manages to survive a terrible car accident, walking away from it injured but also not captured by the law. Perhaps it's a simple matter of fact that because we're not seeing these deaths or any sort of final confrontation on screen, we're meant to believe or presume that in the end the cat-and-mouse chase plot wasn't too relevant all along. Perhaps in the end, we're meant to understand the true meaning of "no country for old men" (taken from the opening line of the poem "Sailing to Byzantium" by William Butler Yeats) in that in order to be happy in old age one should abandon the world’s more primal pleasures and turn to the eternal and spiritual elements instead. This, then, may explain the tonal shift that occurs in the latter part of the film's story. Like a real person, as the film approaches its final conclusion, its focus changes from the external (the money and the chase) to the internal (coming-of-age humanity and significance). Yes, I think I can live with that explanation.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2007.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Carla Jean Moss: "You don't have to do this."
Anton Chigurh: "People always say the same thing."
Carla: "What do they say?"
Anton: "They say, "You don't have to do this."
Carla: "You don't."
(he flips a coin and covers it with his hand)
Anton "This is the best I can do. Call it."
Carla: "I knowed you was crazy when I saw you sitting there. I knowed exactly what was in store for me."
Anton: "Call it."
Carla: "No. I ain't gonna call it."
Anton: "Call it."
Carla: "The coin don't have no say. It's just you."
Anton: "Well, I got here the same way the coin did."