No Country For Old Men (Ethan & Joel Coen, 2007)
The Coen Brothers' No Country For Old Men opens with shots of the parched Western landscape. What makes the shots peculiar is that the landscapes are blanketed by a creeping darkness. The shadows that prominently distinguish the depressed vista manifest a sense of gradual calamity. It's a tremendous opening sequence, and serves a dual purpose. First, it grabs the audience and forces them to immediately get accustomed to the film's very bleak atmosphere, of some metaphoric sparseness and desolation that somehow overlaps with the desert-like topography. Second, it puts a sensible and epic imagery to the melancholic voiceover of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (an infectiously mournful Tommy Lee Jones), reminiscing the old times when his folks, also sheriffs, never needed a gun to do their jobs as compared to the disheartening level of evil that is has grown and is so pronounced during his time. The shots of ageless geography put an intimidating historic grasp to his narrated despair, that the ancient purity of the world is now tainted beyond redemption. His defeated tone forebodes a cataclysmic evil force that is sweeping the land, seamlessly segueing to the arrest of Anton Chigurh (played with delicious ruthlessness by Javier Bardem), the film's unstoppable and very palpable personification of that force of evil.
Chigurh is introduced as a mere shadow, a silhouette and an ordinary concern for the unfortunate sheriff who arrested him. Through a point of view from the ceiling (or if one gets imaginative, from the sky and the heavens), we get our first glimpse of his face. Perfectly situated against the floor etched by a violent struggle, Chigurh's face is horrendous and characterized by eyes that are unnaturally blank and enlarged, evoking both his disquietingly unfeeling ease amidst the pain of strangling the sheriff with his handcuffs and a condescending execration of forces opposite of his. The first crime we witness him commit is an affront to the so-called forces of order. Dragging an oxygen tank connected to a tube that is attached to a gun, Chigurh travels the locality, desperately searching for the tracked bag full of cash, killing anybody adverse to his motive, including Llewelyn Moss (a terrific Josh Brolin), a Vietnam war veteran-turned-mouse in Chigurh's cat-and-mouse chase, a gang of Mexican drug traders and their corporate clients.
It is very tempting to see Chigurh as an otherworldly creature, a symbol rather than a human character. He fashions himself with that frame of thought by discreetly invading spaces secured by locked doors through a forceful shot from his unique weapon or inflecting malevolent verbosity, further defined by his hostile baritone and indistinguishable accent, in all his conversations completely freezing these moments with oppressive questions on life and death. He inhabits both a self-proclaimed and reputed role, that of a harbinger of misfortune and servant of doom. That is the wellspring of his amorality. His inherent lack of guilt for the atrocities he commits against humanity is based on the fact that what he does are mere assigns of a fate. As precursor to his unmotivated murders, he forces his victims to bet on a game of toss coin (as with the gas station manager and Moss' wife (Kelly McDonald)) or asks a question answerable by a yes or no (as with the accountant), giving a fifty percent chance, granted supposedly by fate, of survival. An incorrect bet or answer gives Chigurh a ministerial task to execute, as delegated by fate.
On the other side of the fence is Jones' embattled sheriff, Bell. He is a predestined lawman, originating from a long line of lawmen. Intriguingly, Bell is an inutile sheriff. In the entire duration of the film, he never truly inches close to defeating evil or at least encountering evil to be granted a one-on-one face-off. In one particular scene, Bell investigates the motel where a previous massacre happened, a massacre that would raise doubts his perceived role in the world. Chigurh hides in the shadows and we can only expect the two to finally meet, but when Bell enters the room, there is no confrontation, only an assurance of the resulting drastic void, an acknowledgement of his diminishing significance in a world that has been overwhelmed by darkness.
He proceeds to a relative, also a lawman. There, his melancholy is apparent and overwhelming. The elder lawman asks him about his impending retirement, and he replies about his inevitable aging and unmet expectations of God reaching to him during the peak of his age. Yet there he is, defeated and basking under the subtle and gentle reprimand of his senior. Bell is obviously disappointed of the absence of God and resolute in his passing from his predestined role, vain as in harshly defined by the words of his wheelchaired senior, and as expressed by the final moments of the film where he recounts two dreams to his wife, haunted by the collapse of the world's virtues, the conquest of what he, and all the lawmen previous to him, stood for. His last words "and then I woke up," followed by the blank look of his wife and his own disconsolate stare reinforces the merging of nightmare and reality: both worlds are cold, bleak, hopeless. No Country For Old Men ends in that dour note.
Despite his being representative of the faltering good, Bell's humanity is in exhibit. His failures, frailty, and imperfections are evident. Chigurh, on the other hand, operates in graceful near-perfection, a one-man assassin with the cruel machinations of fate on his side. Less discernible are the glitches in his operation, signaling the surfacing of whatever semblance of his humanity that remains. In one scene, Chigurh forces Moss' wife to bet on a coin toss, which she declines by telling Chigurh that her fate is inevitable. The wife's adamant refusal to play Chigurh's game puts the burden of murder entirely to Chigurh, without the shared responsibility with fate or any other motivation (all of his murders except for this is motivated by greed).
We go back to Bell's voice-over in the beginning, where he narrates the story of a boy who killed a fourteen year old girl and the papers consider it a crime of passion but the boy confirms that there's a blunt intention to kill and that if he ever got out, he'd kill again. An unmotivated murder shows an unfathomable disdain for humankind, and at that moment wherein Chigurh kills the wife (shown offscreen), he inhabits that lower depth of evil wherein he no longer is an agent of fate or of his greed. Traces of probable guilt and regret invade his thoughts on his drive away from the house, leading to the accident. He is no longer a force of evil, no longer a symbol of the invading shadows that is sweeping the land. He is as human as Bell, resigned to the fate of the world and haunted by dreams of his own insignificance, as Moss, who would pay border-crossing teens money for a used jacket. He is embattled by the recent realization that fate is not on his side (definitely not, especially when the roaring vehicle crashes into his), and that he is still a member of this network of mercurial human beings (as when he likewise pays a neighborhood kid for his shirt) who are tiptoeing frequently or infrequently from one side of the border to the other.
Humanity, as I can see from the Coen Brothers' No Country For Old Men are on neither ends of the spectrum. The shadows are neither invading or conquering the land as they are as timeless as the land itself. The newcomers in the land is humanity (the wooden fences or that solitary windmill that jot out of the geography), and from there, it takes sides, to dwell underneath the dark or to bask in the light. However, morality is balanced by forces of fate and fortune and there is no clear border separating good and evil. The most painful thing in the world is realizing just that.