Monday, November 22, 2010

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007): The Theology of Joel and Ethan Coen

Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem ) in No Country for Old Men is probably Satan incarnate.  What’s interesting about this particular personification of evil is that Satan (much like Jehovah in the Old Testament) is a strict moralist that keeps all of his promises.  His morality is indifferent and pitiless in that he believes in the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law and his principles “transcend money or drugs or anything like it.”  He even keeps his promise to kill an innocent young woman merely because she was married to someone who had challenged him and who almost succeeded in taking him down.  It is the type of morality so incredibly difficult to live with that even the Devil had to take some lumps for abiding by it.
Rather than tempt man with an apple, what is at stake in No Country for Old Men is two million dollars left lying around in a duffel bag as a result of a drug deal that went very bad.  Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a hunter who lived in the west Texas area close to El Paso, stumbles upon the money by accident.  Outside of a Mexican just barely alive, everyone else in the vicinity had been shot dead.  Llewelyn absconds with the money and hides it beneath the trailer that he and his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly McDonald), own.  We discover that Llewelyn is a decent man and he’s bothered that he left a wounded man out there to suffer.  He returns to the scene to provide the wounded man with water only to find that man with his head shot off.  The drug dealers who have returned for the money then spot Llewelyn and he is wounded in the chase that occurs.  Llewelyn is able to make it back home, but now knows that he and his wife must leave the area.
Anton Chigurh then enters Llewelyn’s life.  Anton we already know by this time has strangled a deputy sheriff while Anton was wearing handcuffs.  While on the prowl, Anton possesses as murder weapons a slaughterhouse stun gun and a shotgun with a silencer.  His haircut is also singular.  Anton was originally hired by a businessman (Stephen Root), a silent partner in the drug deal who is after the two million dollars.  Not having faith that Anton is actually going to keep his end of the bargain, the businessman then hires Carson Welles (Woody Harrelson), a private detective, to hunt Anton down to get the money.  Too bad for all of them.  Anton kills the drug dealers, the businessman and Carson Welles before the movie is over.  Llewelyn proves to be a more difficult challenge.  Llewelyn, certainly over his head, has still been in a number of prior tight scrapes, which would include his tour of duty in Viet Nam.  Llewelyn even manages to put a couple of bullets into Anton in their first encounter.
Unfortunately, Llewelyn is at a disadvantage to Anton for a couple of different reasons.  Llewelyn is torn between his adoration of Carla Jean and his unwillingness to give up on the money.  Anton understands this.  Anton, always willing to bargain (or even simply flip a coin to decide whether he will or will not kill a person), tells Llewelyn he will not harm Carla Jean if Llewelyn brings him the money.  Anton makes no promises that he will spare Llewelyn’s life.  Llewelyn, still confident that he can outfight Anton, refuses to make the deal.  Anton then discovers where Llewelyn is staying, comes over and guns Llewelyn down.  This killing is never shown on screen and the audience discovers the killing at the same time that Carla Jean discovers her husband’s body.  Anton then makes one last trip over to Carla Jean’s home.  Carla Jean refuses to bargain with him by calling the flip of the coin.  Anton walks out of the home with the money after, we assume, he has taken Carla’s life.  Anton drives away, is involved in a car accident where he breaks him arm, and pays a young boy for his t-shirt that he turns into a sling.  Anton then walks away from the accident scene with the bag of money and that’s the last we see of him.
Interspersed between all of the mayhem, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) investigates the murders and tries to make sense out of all that has happened.  The Sheriff laments that fact that manners have all gone away and philosophizes about this while casting his eye across the endless landscape of West Texas.  (The Sheriff is told by his former deputy (Barry Corbin), now in a wheelchair probably due to being shot in the spine, that such bleakness is not just a modern concept – it has always been with us.)  Randomness, the Sheriff reasons, always rules where there is indifference to life.  And it is during one of these typical laments by Sheriff Bell that the movie abruptly ends.
No Country for Old Men is an interesting, often humorous and well-paced film, is well acted by everyone in the cast (especially by Brolin and Bardem), and is one of the least sentimental of movies that I’ve ever seen.  The audience does not even get a chance to view the killings of the two characters it cares for most in the movie (Llewelyn and Carla Jean) to provide the film with a more tragic feel.  Many key characters are dispatched with so quickly that we don’t have time to comprehend what has occurred.  Likewise, we never have a doubt that Anton will “win” out, though many in the audience may still have been hoping for a happy ending half way through the movie.  Some critics have stated that there was no characters we cared for in the movie, but that isn’t true.  The audience in attendance when I saw the movie was taken aback by the suddenness of which Llewelyn is killed.  Llewelyn certainly had his flaws, but these were flaws that were recognizably human.  Llewelyn never injured anyone save Anton upon trying to escape with the money, and he took the money in part to also provide a better life for Carla Jean.
The Coen’ Brothers, as usual, rely to some degree upon caricature, but not as much in No Country for Old Men as in many of their other movies.  Perhaps this is because the caricature contained in this movie is confined to a great degree to the more minor characters involved.  Outside of Anton, all of the major characters have attributes that we can identify with.  Even Carson Welles, who breaks out into a cold sweat while holding his final conversation with Anton, is understandably baffled by Anton’s complete lack of a human soul.
No Country for Old Men, based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy*, is not a movie we are going to remember with any specificity outside of such oddities as the way Anton killed many of his victims.  The film allows the action to tell the story for the most part rather than the dialogue.  (The ending is a Coen’ Brothers trick to keep the audience guessing, and it will work for some audience members and not for others.)  When Ed Tom Bell goes off on his reminisces, we understand that he’s only guessing at what is behind all of the murders.  The murders are carried out in such a stark manner that even the lifelong Texan can’t figure out the motivations behind them.  And Anton, himself, never takes the time to analyze what he does.  He merely abides by all of the agreements that he makes to the other characters in the movie.  And he does stick to those admittedly one-sided agreements where whoever he meets generally ends up dead.
Thus No Country for Old Men is a humble movie in that it never gets preachy or plays upon the audience’s emotions.  Yet at the same time because the Coen’ Brothers go to such a degree to understate everything, the movie is also a limited one.  The movie is one of the best that has been released in 2007 because of its unflinching depiction of evil.  But though it puts a negative face on the dehumanization within our society, it also shows us almost nothing that is actively positive.  Sheriff Ed Tom Bell abstractions about evil never resolve anything, and Carla Jean makes no effort to save herself in the end.  Only Llewelyn, as deeply flawed as he is, shows any real backbone - and he exits the movie when it is barely half over. 
* McCarthy is a southern gothic writer often compared to Faulkner.  This is obviously a stretch, and it would probably be better if most movie critics refrained from making such comparisons and instead went back to reading John Grisham. 
December 28, 2007
 © Robert S. Miller 2007

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