Friday, December 28, 2007

No Country For Old Men (2007)

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.


Anonymous said...

oooh. where'd you get to see it? btw, no top ten list?

Noel Vera said...

Been reading a lot of pros and cons for it, and basically I have no real complaints--except for a truly great film and not merely an amusing one, I'd like my metaphysical givens to seem more persuasive, not just gimmicky.

It's on my ten best--well, thirteen, I think--but mostly as an entertainment.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks Noel and anonymous,

I'm currently working on my 2007 recap. So that's next, if ever it gets completed.

I actually thought that No Country's metaphysics overpowered its entertainment prowess; never felt it as mere gimmickry. It's probably one of the few Coens (along with Hudsucker Proxy and Fargo, perhaps) that got me focusing more on what it meant rather than on how it looks or how it works as a film. At least we agree that it's very entertaining, hehe.

Anonymous said...

Glad you reviewed "No Country for Old Men," stop wasting time on stupid Filipino movies.

Anonymous said...

I would say that anonymous' stupid filipino movies is only limited to mainstream works which is still in a quagmire. there are really better movies in the Indie circuit that are worth watching and enjoying.

Anonymous said...

How the heck did you manage to see this?!

Noel Vera said...

I should say annonymous shold grow the balls to put in his real name, or at least a psuedonym.

I can see the metaphysics, but even they're so shallow. Big scary man with altar girl haircut, going around with a cattle killer? That's not death, that's a walking joke. I enjoy the joke, but that's about it.

You should see Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Right now Lumet (who I don't always like) is a better filmmaker than the Coens ever were, or could ever hope to be.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks Noel and Estan,

Never saw Chigurh as death, or heck, even evil, as what Bell thinks he is. He's very human with a complex of invulnerability, which makes him think of himself as an agent of evil, or something. And he's funny too. I liked how the Coens played around with the metaphysics of good and evil but still kept his characters grounded with human fallibility.

I'll be in the look out for the new Lumet. Haven't seen much of his works, but I enjoyed 12 Angry Men and Find Me Guilty (now those are decades apart).

Noel Vera said...

Not all that fallible. When fate does give him a slap in the face (2000 pounds worth), he manages to crawl out of it. It's an underwritten role, conceived to look cool, I think. And Brolin coming back to the scene of the crime is dumb beyond compare.

But never mind. I've not always been a big fan of Lumet--dislike Network, 12 Angry Men, The Verdict; always found him talky and too stagy, and if Long Day's Journey to Night is great, that's mainly thanks to his cast and O'Neill. But with Dog Day Afternoon and this picture, I do think he's terrific, or at least he has a narrow range where he's as good as most of them.

Oggs Cruz said...

Crawled out of the mess, but had to beg help from neighborhood kids. That's pretty embarrassing for the powerful personification of evil. It shows that he's human after all.

I gotta see Dog Day Afternoon then. I thought 12 Angry Men was terrific, but that's probably law school brainwashing. I'll have to see it again.

Noel Vera said...

Dog Day, in my opine, is above all his masterpiece. The quintessential Lumet New York film.

Then there's his massive Prince of the City, which is pretty good, I thought, despite what Paulettes say. Again another New York film.

Noel Vera said...

Y'know, the best portrait of evil I ever saw was a production of Goethe's Faust by PETA at Fort Santiago; Mephisto was played by Mario O'Hara. Twenty years younger and he could have played Chigurh. As is, he was tremendous--he was the Devil, and he wore one white sneaker, one red sneaker, and in one of the quitest most intimate moments, he was devastating. I don't remember the exact line, but it was the way he said it--he betrayed sympathy, no he betrayed affection for these humans he tempted. I swear, the hairs on the back of my neck all the way up to my arms stood up.

I doubt if that article is online. I do think it's in my book somewhere.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks for the recommendations Noel. I'll have to search them out, starting with his latest, then probably Dog Day, and then the rest.