Saturday, September 11, 2010

No Country for Old Men

Bardem as Chigurh
It is only three years since the wonderful film No Country for Old Men hit the cinemas.  It is a gripping and spine-chilling 2007 American crime thriller film adapted for the screen and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, and stars Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, and Josh Brolin.   It is based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name.  It is on my mind here and now because our national broadcaster here in Ireland RTE screened it on last Wednesday evening.   No Country for Old Men tells the story of an ordinary man to whom chance delivers a fortune that is not his - millions of dollars in a sturdy black case from a drugs deal that had gone badly wrong leaving all its participants dead or dying.  Llewelyn Moss, acted superbly by Josh Brolin takes the money and thus begins a violent cat-and-mouse drama, as the three men Moss, Ed Tom Bell (the Sheriff, played by Tommy Lee Jones) and and Anton Chiguhr (who is spine-chillingly portrayed by the wonderful Spanish actor Javier Bardem) crisscross each other's paths in the desert landscape of 1980 West Texas. The film examines the themes of fate, chance, circumstance and all-pervading death that the Coen brothers have previously explored in Blood Simple (1984) and Fargo (1996)

Brolin as Moss
It is no wonder at all that this brilliant film was honoured with numerous awards, garnering three British Academy of Film awards, two Golden Globes, and four Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director (Joel and Ethan Coen), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem).  What grabs the viewer from the beginning is the wonderful direction which the reviewer Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times lauded "as good a film as the Coen brothers...have ever made" and also the marvellous feel that these wonderful directors have for landscape-based westerns.  Roger Deakins' cinematography is nothing short of marvellous.  The film opens with Moss fixing the sights of his rifle on a deer which is grazing with its unaware herd.  He shoots and badly wounds his quarry whose blood trail he follows.  It is during his pursuit of the wounded stag that he stumbles upon the scene of the drugs deal gone wrong.

I regret that I have read none of Cormac McCarthy's blood-curdling novels and plays which range from the Southern Gothic, Western, to post-apocalyptic genres.  McCarthy is obviously of Irish descent though I cannot find how far back he can trace his Irish progenitors though he has an official webpage here: Cormac McCarthy which gives quite a good amount of information about the author.  McCarthy, while in no sense a recluse like J.D. Salinger, guards his privacy very strictly.  He gives interviews, but they are infrequent.  However, I found an old one on the internet.  Therein he expressed the following views which are very insightful into his unique style and take on literature.  Indeed, this old interview gives us an a deeper understanding of this film which is based solidly on his fine novel:

In one of his few interviews (with The New York Times), McCarthy reveals that he is not a fan of authors who do not "deal with issues of life and death," citing Henry James and Marcel Proust as examples. "I don't understand them," he said. "To me, that's not literature. A lot of writers who are considered good I consider strange." (See here: Wiki: McCarthy)
That interview in The New York Times with Richard B Woodward dates back to April 1992, long before he had written the novel No Country for Old Men but it reveals a man and author accustomed to exploring wild places both in the physical landscape and deep in the soul of his characters.  Those wild places or spaces of soul or psyche are as frightening as their physical counterparts. Woodward goes on to quote Robert Coles who called McCarthy a "novelist of religious feeling," comparing him with the Greek dramatists and medieval moralists. And in a prescient observation he noted the novelist's "stubborn refusal to bend his writing to the literary and intellectual demands of our era," calling him a writer "whose fate is to be relatively unknown and often misinterpreted." (NY Times Interview)

In this review we learn that McCarthy is attracted to people who live a perilous lifestyle and that his favourite novel is Herman Melville's Moby Dick.  A longer quotation from that 1992 New York Times Interview gives a deeper insight into this author's bleak philosophy of life and into his equally bleak literary concerns.  It is good to view this film again in the light of these comments, which, while they refer to the novel Blood Meridian (McCarthy's Western novel from 1985) can also be taken as a commentary on both the novel and film No Country for Old Men:

Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Bell
More profoundly, the book explores the nature of evil and the allure of violence. Page after page, it presents the regular, and often senseless, slaughter that went on among white, Hispanic and Indian groups. There are no heroes in this vision of the American frontier. "There's no such thing as life without bloodshed," McCarthy says philosophically. "I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous." (NY Times Interview)
Now back to the film and its plot.  I can only presume that it follows more or less that of the original novel on which it is based.  The scene is West Texas  and the time is June 1980  and we are in desolate, wide open country and we see Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) lamenting the increasing violence in a region where he, like his father before him, has risen to the office of sheriff. Then, as I have already said we see Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), out hunting a type of deer which I have learned is called pronghorn.  It is while engaged in this hunting pursuit that he comes across the aftermath of a drug deal gone awry: several dead men and dogs, a wounded Mexican begging for water, and two million dollars in a satchel that he takes to his trailer home. Later that night, restless in his bed, his conscience gets to him and he returns with water for the dying man, but is chased away by two men in a truck and loses his vehicle. When he gets back home he grabs the cash, sends his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) to her mother's, and makes his way to a motel in the next county where he hides the satchel in the air vent of his room.  There then ensues a film drenched in violence and in blood.  We meet sheer wanton violence coupled with the wonderment and confusion of the police in the person of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (played by Tommy Lee Jones)

Hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) has been hired to recover the money. He has already strangled a sheriff's deputy to escape custody and stolen a car by using a captive bolt pistol to kill the driver. Now he carries a receiver that traces the money via a transponder concealed inside the satchel to Moss's hideout. Bursting into the room at night, Chigurh surprises a group of Mexicans set to ambush Moss and murders them all. Moss, however, one step ahead, has rented the connecting room on the other side, so by the time Chigurh removes the vent cover with a dime to grab the cash, it is already back on the road with Moss.  All the while Sherriff Ed Tom Bell is perplexed by such wanton violence and is at a singular loss to explain it as we the viewers are also. 

An interesting angle for me as an Irishman is the title of the film, and indeed book, namely No Country for Old Men which is a quotation from the Nobel Prize winning Irish poet W.B. Yeats.  Here are a few lines which contain the words of the title from that famous poem Sailing to Byzantium:

THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
Yeats goes on to state in this poem that "An aged man is but a paltry thing, A tattered coat upon a stick" and we have this feeling that Sherriff  Ed Tom Bell is such a paltry thing that is totally impotent and powerless against the onward driving power of relentless evil.  He can do absolutely nothing to prevent it.   Evil or even Death is personified in the figure of Anton Chigurh who is seen a few times asking his victims to call before he tosses the coin to seal their fate.  In this he could be said to be a representative of the Grim Reaper and of the inevitability of our personal extinction in death. In the end Death in the person of Chigurh hobbles off to fight another day against the next unsuspecting victim who falls under the shadow of his evil eye.  To this extent the book and film are firmly in the tradition of folklore in that Death is always portrayed therein as getting its victim.  There simply is no denial of its all-conquering power . All that's left to Bell  is to retire and allow a younger man to take up the pursuit.  However, the film leaves us with no optimism that the younger generation will be any more successful against the onward ruthless march of evil.  Ed Tom Bell is left confronting the nature of his own ageing soul and is attempting to discuss and interpret his own dreams or nightmares which may possibly be guilt-ridden.  That's all he can do now.

There are many good discussions of this film and indeed book available on the net.  Just google the title and go from there.  And if you can, enjoy the mysterious pursuit of the enigma that is evil. Woodword, in the above New York Times interview with the author described McCarthy's fiction as venomous.  In like manner the Coens' wonderful film is equally so.