One learns the strangest things from films. Apparently, if a psychopath gives one the opportunity to converse before being murdered by a shotgun with a silencer, it is inadvisable to plead by saying “You don’t have to do this!” Apparently, this will be considered unoriginal and you may be mocked for it. Of anything I could have possibly learnt by watching No Country for Old Men, which is a painstakingly realistic account of a way of life that is foreign to me, this was the film moment that made the deepest impression upon me. I guess because I’m more likely to try talking my way out of such an encounter than doing anything else. If my options are going to boil down to fight, flee or negotiate, and I’m going to choose negotiate because it’s the only way I’ve got even a slim chance, then I’d damn well better know how to negotiate right.
Unfortunately for the characters who try to negotiate with the villain of No Country for Old Men, sometimes people refuse to negotiate. Sometimes people prefer to abdicate responsibility for their actions, and claim that something entirely under their power is in fact determined by random chance. Woe to the human who treats a monster as a human. Sometimes the monster wins, sometimes he loses – but woe to the humans who get in his way, or sometimes, those who simply exist nearby.
What struck me the most about No Country for Old Men was its use of music, or rather, its lack thereof. The audio component of the film relies entirely upon speech, sound effects (such as the silenced shotgun), and ambient noise. I don’t think there’s a single music cue in it until the credits roll. Even when characters are riding in vehicles that might logically make use of FM radio, no music plays, just the sounds of driving and occasional speech. I enjoyed this as an artistic choice because music is such an easy emotional tool in a film’s toolkit. Time and again in my life, nothing has hooked into my emotions like music, not even the sight of my love’s face. The absence of music in No Country for Old Men simultaneously makes the film more present – this is what one would realistically hear when out at night in rural Texas – and more remote – by lowering the ceiling of emotional impact possible. Because my emotions were not as absorbed as I am used to them being by the content of a film with music, I had additional energy to intellectually contemplate the implications of the film’s narrative and other aspects of its construction, such as the painstaking attention to detail used to place the film in 1980 (see my review of Argo for my thoughts on the creative work required to do a period piece set in the late 20th century).
Anton Chigurh, No Country for Old Men‘s villain, completely steals the show in this one. Not because Javier Bardem hams it up, no, not by any means – in fact he displays very good control of his craft – but rather because the character of Chigurh is so distinctive. Carson Wells (played by Woody Harrelson, whom as usual I loved to hate) tries to paint Chigurh as a run-of-the-mill psychopath when Wells initially meets with the creatively named “man who hires Wells”, but Chigurh came across as very idiosyncratic to me. Even after his character seemed well-established in the film, when the viewer knows his method and motives, he continued to pull the occasional fast one on me that left me scratching my head. I guess it’s a good thing I couldn’t think like he did. I do have to politely disagree with Wells and the other characters in the narratives who assert that Chigurh is “crazy”. I can remember when I was young, around the time that Jeffrey Dahmer was in the news, asking my father whether serial killers were sick or not (and we are in a day and age when “crazy” is considered a form of “sick”). His reply was something like, “Some people aren’t sick, sweetie. Some people are just evil.” Now that I’m a lot closer to the age my father was when he made that solemn admission about the world, I must say I concur with his words. Chigurh is not crazy; Chigurh is a particularly dangerous brand of evil. One of Chigurh’s traits that I found most disturbing was his willingness to take actions that he had to know would cause him physical damage and pain, to achieve some other end. He neither avoids pain, nor seems to take masochistic pleasure from it; it simply does not matter to him, he’s got stuff to do. If the mind is the master, and the body is the slave, Chigurh’s mind is the Simon Legree of slavemasters. (Don’t know who I’m talking about? Go read a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.)
Hunting plays a prominent position in No Country for Old Men. Chigurh is clearly a predator who loves hunting intelligent game, taking it on as both his profession and hobby (kind of a one-note song that way I suppose). But Moss, who is arguably the film’s hero, is also a hunter. In fact, the first thing we see him do in the film is hunt wild game. How is it different to hunt a hunter, versus hunting quarry? This was probably the most intriguing aspect of the film for me. Time and again, I compared how Moss’ actions while being pursued differed drastically from what I would have done, and every time I concluded that the difference lay in the fact that he thought like a hunter, whereas I was thinking like quarry. The deepest observation that his wife makes about Moss is that he was never able to admit when he needed help. I guess some hunters are better able to work in packs than others. Sheriff Bell (played by Tommy Lee Jones in a manner reminiscent to his work in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) is also hunting intelligent game. He has the authority of the law on his side, but that is not where his moral high ground comes from. His style of hunting, simply put has rules. It’s predictable. And the film makes a powerful argument that it is this predictability that dooms law men to failure. After seeing film after film in which police officers have been portrayed as either Supermen worthy of worship, or as corrupt and power mad, it was refreshing to watch Sheriff Bell the law man doing a job. It made the film’s ending, which don’t worry I am not going to say anything about that requires a spoiler, a lot harder to swallow.
Despite the setting of rural Texas, despite the presence of sheriffs on horseback and shootout after shootout, No Country for Old Men is not a Western. In fact, it could even be viewed as a postmodern commentary on the Western genre. Viewed this way, the title can be seen as a warning – if you’re expecting a Western that follows a formula and the rules, you’re going to be disappointed. I guess my disappointment in this film stemmed from not reading the back of the box and relying on the fact that I remembered hearing the film’s title being mentioned by more than one source I respect as that of a great film. While No Country for Old Men is extremely well-crafted, challenges genre conventions and provoked a lot of thought from me, as a film experience I would say it’s good but not great. The ending really did dissatisfy me, and I also cringed at the way the camera lingered on some gory, bleeding injuries. Though I do have to hand it to the Coen brothers for one aspect of how violence was handled: No Country for Old Men pays a lot more attention to the aftermath, how violence must be mopped up, than any other film I can recall. Down to the detail of having Sheriff Bell wisecrack with the man hauling bodies away from a crime scene under a loose tarp. Body haulers don’t really get a lot of screen time in most films. Well done, gentlemen.
Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5.