Life as it ain't

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No Country for Old Men

Posted by Ronak M Soni on March 23, 2010

Originally published at PassionforCinema.

No Country for Old Men, 2007, 122 min

Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, based upon a book by Cormac McCarthy

Music by Carter Burwell

Cinematography by Roger Deakins

Story: Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon a drug deal gone bad and takes the money, but a psychopathic killer with a cattle gun Anton Chigurh (Shi-GUR; Javier Bardem) is bent upon taking the money from him. Meanwhile, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) helplessly and uncomprehendingly tries to stop Chigurh.

A Still from the movieThe last half-hour of No Country for Old Men is one of the more surprising one can see in the movies. It’s much more surprising than in a con movie or a suspense thriller, because in those movies we expect to be surprised. This movie makes absolutely no claims at being a surpriser anywhere during its running length, and that lends the surprise an air of unexpectedness completely absent from most other movies.

For the first two-thirds of the movie, the dominant theme of my thoughts was: there are movies, which aim to mean more than movies, then there are movie-movies, which aim to be merely great cinematically, and then there’s No Country for Old Men, which just aims to be. It’s not about the two people engaged in this fatal struggle, for the few times we actually see their faces in any detail, in shots that in other movies would be supposed to deepen our connections to the characters, it is surprising and even slightly disconcerting; we suddenly realise how completely unexplainable these characters are. Why doesn’t Llewellyn Moss just stop? Why does Anton Chigurh… to hell with that, why is he?

The most important reason this movie completely draws us in is not because the landscapes are beautiful – quite the opposite, I’d say, but even that in itself has involving power – or because the plot has a deep metaphorical resonance with our daily lives – I’d need to see this one really well-argued to be convinced – or because the world this movie is set in is so bleak, and certainly not because we relate to the characters. No, the most important reason is the noisetrack. It’s not a soundtrack in the conventional sense; at one point it’s about to become one, but some musicians reveal themselves as the source of the music.

As I was saying before above irrelevant interjection, the charm of the first two-thirds of this movie lies mostly in its noisetrack. What draws us in is the clasping of the satchel, the cocking of the gun, the dragging of the shoe, the beeping of the detector, the flip of the switch, the buzzing of the fly, the banging of the door, and every other sound ever made by any man walking or driving across Texas. No Country for Old Men, dear reader, is the only movie that made me find dialogues spoken in thick Southern accents –with their long, loving drawls and habit of ending every sentence on a high note that I find to be the best things about many movies – anywhere near boring.

Yes, it can be argued that we are actually involved because of all the bleakness, and I would have to be a blind arse to not agree that there is some in the attitude of the plot, but that’s the only place you’ll find any of that. The Coens play it as a set of tense set-pieces; Brolin and Bardem play it merely like their characters, more along the lines of great performers than good actors; and the screenplay is more concerned with the minutiae of their actions than anything else. The only person who sees anything existentially scary about anything in the movie is the sheriff Ed Tom Bell.

And it is precisely this that No Country for Old Men becomes about in the third third. I’m not completely sure about whether this is a good thing; this turn-around takes away the status of movie-movie-movie that I was willing to endow upon this film, and a certain brand of uniqueness, and the major charm of the first two thirds, but this way the movie has an emotional heft going with the ending, Tommy Lee Jones (even his real name sounds like it’s from this movie) declaring, “And then I woke up.” An emotional heft that is much better for our memory of the movie than for the experience itself.

The problem with me, I suppose, is that I am, right now, thinking about my memory of the experience. Maybe, I think, it would have been better if I hadn’t watched it on a big screen (at the American Library in Chennai, where they show an American movie every Saturday) and I hadn’t so strongly noticed the little sounds and attributed my involvement to them. As things stand, at any rate, I’m slightly ambivalent about the ending, but this still remains one of the great exercises in style.

15 Responses to “No Country for Old Men

  1. S M Rana said

    Frankly when I saw it quite some time back, it failed to make much of an impression on me and seemed like one more serial killer. That gas cylinder thing he was toting seemed rather comic–a lighter weight contraption would probably have been more functional. I may have missed something but I am not inclined to give it a second go.

  2. Where did you see it? It seems to me that that thing makes a lot of difference with this movie (see last paragraph).

    You are, however, probably right about it being just one more serial killer movie.

  3. S M Rana said

    On a small screen. I’m making it a kind of rule now only to risk films which seem to have sufficient depth to justify multiple viewings–even the great or nearly so constitute a daunting mountain. Goes for books too. Life is fleeting and art is an ocean–one must pick and choose and sample before it’s bonsoir!

  4. I sympathise with you, but at my age I feel I do benefit from the non-great too. Something to do, I think, with the hope that they will be great, just like I’d hope for others to hope that something I do would be great…

    • S M Rana said

      No, no! Not a matter of age or a requirement for sympathy. It is more a matter of how much we value ou own life. I quote from my favourite author:

      Four years ago in spring, I went to London at the invitation of Dr. Toynbee for my second meeting with the British historian. After spending five days talking with him, I went to Paris, and from there rode a train for two hours to the Loire. Clear streams washing grassy banks, flocks of sheep, steeples of ancient castles, paths where birds chirped, quiet woods, flowers in full bloom, ageless farmhouses built of stone — in such surroundings stood the ivy-covered house where Leonardo da Vinci spent his later years. In the bedroom where he ended his life there was a copper plate on which were engraved his words:

      A substantial life is long.
      Meaningful days give one a good sleep.
      A fulfilled life gives one a quiet death.

      C. G. Jung said, “From the middle of life onward, only he remains vitally alive who is ready to die with life.” [C. G. Jung, The Meaning of Death (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1959), p. 6.] Jung’s remark probably originated from his belief that the latter half of one’s life is especially important. In a way, however, to be ready to “die with life” may be necessary throughout one’s lifetime. Perhaps we can say that only those with such a determination will prove to have lived a truly vital life.

      In his study, “The Relation between Life and Death, Living and Dying,” Dr. Toynbee wrote: ” ‘In the midst of life we are in death.’ From the moment of birth there is the constant possibility that a human being may die at any moment; and inevitably this possibility is going to become an accomplished fact sooner or later. Ideally, every human being ought to live each passing moment of his life as if the next moment were going to be his last.” Although conceding that perhaps it may be too difficult for any human being to live permanently on this ideal level, he went on to say, “What can be said with assurance is that, the closer a human being can come to attaining this ideal state of heart and mind, the better and happier he or she will be.” [Man’s Concern with Death ed. Arnold Toynbee (London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd., 1968), p. 259.]

  5. S M Rana said

    That was Dr. Daisaku Ikeda.

  6. S M Rana said

    Furthurmore, I’m far from having either of my feet in the grave. Better known for brimming life-force which the chronologically so classified youth seems sadly often wanting in. So the sympathy you mention may have more deserving candidates spread over the spectrum of age groups.

    No offence intended.

  7. No offence taken/intended here either, because I was referring here to the wisdom that age brings than the closeness to death; it’s rather obvious from the way you write that a foot in the grave isn’t one of your primary concerns.

    The Ikeda quote is very nice.

    • S M Rana said

      Age does not necessarily translate into wisdom. I know many a wise young man, who would put tottering reverends to shame. In fact, young age may precisely the only age where one might initiate the process of wisdom. The Buddha attained enlightenment at a young age. You may be familiar with the famous lines which open the main part of Goethe’s drama “Faust”( also available as an excellent silent film, 1926 or so, by Murnau):

      Faust. I’ve studied now Philosophy
      And Jurisprudence, Medicine,
      And even, alas! Theology
      All through and through with ardour keen!
      Here now I stand, poor fool, and see
      I’m just as wise as formerly.
      Am called a Master, even Doctor too,
      And now I’ve nearly ten years through
      Pulled my students by their noses to and fro
      And up and down, across, about,
      And see there’s nothing we can know!

      • True. Why I was trying to say what I was trying to say was that you have come to a point of experience where you’re weary of the non-great, whereas I’m not. While I see why you’re weary of it, I don’t feel it yet. For example, last night, I watched this movie called Assassination of a High School President, which is a noir story set in a high school for the purpose of showing how ridiculous it is (lovingly, though); for you, it would be boring, but for me it cements my understanding of noir
        Hope we’ve got this cleared up.

        I’ve read the lines from Faust before, but this is the first time I noticed

        And even, alas! Theology

        This must have seemed pretty out of line in the ninteenth century (sorry for the irrelevant subversion).

        • S M Rana said

          Talking of non great, one of my cinematic memories is the globe-dance by the super-villain Soprano (Gulshan Grover) in the Bollywood flick “Tom, Dick and Harry” which is inspired by Chaplin’s identical act in “The Great Dictator” but probably funnier.

  8. And Ikeda is Japanese. Might have to check him out. 🙂

    Also, there’s supposedly a lot of symbolism in No Country for Old Men. I tried to find a letter that used to be on Ebert’s webpage, where someone went through the symbolism associated with the character of Anton Chigurh (Angel of Death, coin is fate, etc.), but it is no longer posted.

    I have yet to see this film, or read the book (by Cormac McCarthy), though one of my housemates owns (or borrowed) McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which is considered to be his masterpiece (and which Ebert has referred to, as well). Now that would be an interesting book to review.

    • S M Rana said

      Slightly surprising your having spent a long time in Japan and never having heard of Dr. Daisaku Ikeda? Or were you in a tower of some kind?

    • Jim Emerson has a lot of posts at Scanners about this movie, discussing it very closely. I haven’t got down to reading it, and I probably won’t be reading them unless I end up watching the movie again.

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