Friday, December 7, 2007

Movies: No Country For Old Men

No Country For Old Men is no movie for young girls, one of which I continue to consider myself. I've not yet read the book, and so cannot judge the film by its compliance, instead, only by the dread tedium with which it filled me as I sat in the near-empty movie-palace late late on a weeknight, expecting to be blown away, and instead wishing I could blow all the wooden characters away (they are thick enough that it would take a gunshot rather than a breath, but thick is not deep, contrary to popular misconceptions).

I would like to argue that the film is simply objectively dreadful, but I've found that a number of my male friends (and even one of my lady friends) thought it was the best movie of the year (and it wasn't just a really bad year), so I will have to accept that there is something about this movie, which is chock-full of random, non-campy violence, cold, stiff characters with no penetrable motivation, and big, empty landscapes to please my philosophically- and artistically-inclined friends. I don't know what it is, because I found the film to be irrational and aesthetically uninteresting, but these are people whose opinions I tend to value.

The plot is as as follows: somewhere in rural-ish Texas, a guy out hunting comes upon a scene: two bullet-riddled trucks, a number of dead Mexicans, a dead dog, and a truckload of narcotics. He collects all the weapons and keeps them, and trudges off to find another dead body resting in the shade of the plain's only tree, and there finds a case of money (which turns out to be $2 million). This scene is well-crafted, and the artistic mind will appreciate the way his scavenging mirrors the scavenging of the hyena that had, minutes earlier, eaten up the deer the hunter had shot and wounded. From that point on, though, I had a similar response to Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) that I had to Bigger Thompson in Native Son: he makes wrong decision after wrong decision, for the sole purpose of furthering the plot. A writer who treats his characters like pawns in the game of pushing his agenda—whether it be philosophical or political—is a hack, and having read Blood Meridian, I'm hesitant to label McCarthy by that epithet, and more inclined to pin the blame on the Coens.

But back to the plot. Llewelyn decides to go back to the "scene of the crime" (mistake number one, which no man of his mettle would, in real life, do) in the middle of the night with a can of kerosene. Before he can torch the tableaux, another truck pulls up to his, slashes his tires, and starts to shoot and chase him. Llewelyn runs. He outruns the truck. This, dear readers, is ludicrous; men simply cannot outrun trucks. The truck drivers send a nasty, muscled dog after him when Llewelyn tries to escape by jumping into a river. This, dear readers, is again unlikley; a man probably cannot outrun and swim a dog of such breed. When the dog does catch up, Llewelyn shoots it dead. This moment is nicely done, although it requires a grand suspension of disbelief to get to that point.

Llewelyn knows that shit is going down, so he sends his hemmy-hawy wife to her mother's house and prepares for combat by abandoning his trailer and moving into a motel. Meanwhile, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), looking for the money, begins to hunt him, first going to his trailer, then his motel. Also on the trail is the sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones, who else?!) who is as disinterested and detached from his case as I am about this film; he goes through the motions up to a point, and then throws in the proverbial towel and wonders why he ever bothered in the first place. Before that, though, Llewelyn and Anton circle each other, predator and poisonous prey. In and out of a variety of motels and stolen vehicles, they shoot at each other and service their own wounds in the same "manly" way Mark Wahlberg's character does in Shooter (for some reason, we are supposed to take the hulking, animal-like Bardem much more seriously). Once it's too late, Llewelyn realizes that Anton has been tracking him thanks to a blinking device lodged in the suitcase of bills; rather than ditching the tracker, jumping out the window, and getting the hell out of the motel room (movie-goers, suspend your disbelief), he waits behind the door for Anton, prepared to shoot upon the beast's entrance. He eventually does leap out the window, jumping into a stolen car, but sustains wounds thanks to his delay.

Eventually, Llewelyn wises up (after a drunken, bloodied night in Mexico followed up by a conversation with bounty hunter Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) (who, not surprisingly, will also end up dead at Anton's gunpoint)) and instructs his wife to load herself and her mother into a cab to a motel in the nearest city with an international airport. While they're on their way, though, Llewelyn arrives at the motel and joins a woman lounging poolside for a beer in her room. Needless to say, when wifey arrives, close on the heels of the sheriff, it's already a crime scene; Llewelyn is shot dead (we don't see the shot or body, as if anything could be to graphic after all the killing we've witnessed along the way) and Anton is long gone with his money. Afterward, there is no need for the audience to wonder what the poor young widow will do; Anton arrives in her house and engages her in a succinct cat-and-mouse conversation before, presumably, shooting her dead. Again, one wonders why the Coens chose to add the seed of non-ambiguous ambiguity by protecting the audience from witnessing the actual shooting.

Once Llewelyn is dead, of course, the audience loses whatever vestigial interest in the film it might have had, even though the Coens go on to show the sheriff have two impenetrable "deep" conversations, one with a wheelchair-bound ex-colleague, who serves four-day-old coffee, and one with his wife over breakfast, while he tries to decide how to spend his day now that he's retired, and recounts the bad dream he had the night before. And, with this unpleasant mouth of spit-up to be swallowed, the film ends.

Reviews have had their socks knocked left and right over Bardem's "chilling" performance as either an amoral or weirdly ethical killer, but I found Anton's character to be the biggest intellectual turn-off of the whole hollow mess. The king of empty, he's so methodical that he performs most of his executions with an air gun, a kind of heavy gas-tank that he carries around that has a tube attached to the top; he uses it to blow locks out of doors and to blow holes in people's foreheads with equal perfunction. He toys with a few of his victims, threatening to use a coin toss to determine their fate (a gas-station owner doesn't understand what's happening, but Llewelyn's widow does), and this is being considered by some as ascribing to his character a philosophical bent. To me, though, Anton functions completely outside of philosophy, and in fact outside of humanity (I have wondered, after watching this film, whether there are people like him, and I have decided there are not—not that there are not serial killers, mob-men, and murderers of every kind, that kill for work or play. But Anton doesn't kill for work or for play or for revenge or for attention (those seem to be the the newest killers lighting up the front page); he's just a killing machine. He kills because that's what he does. He came into the world the age that he is, shooting; he had no childhood, no family, no lover. His character is a character that kills, and his violence is clean and dispassionate, often an afterthought (at one moment, while driving, he pauses to shoot dead a bird standing on a bridge's safety rail). This is lazy characterization, and as I said at the outset, I don't know whether to blame McCarthy or the Coens. But someone should be shot.


brendon said...

i pretty much agree with everything you wrote, and would add that there was a lot of pseudo-philosophical musing about 'fate' that you had to sit through and can probably blame mccarthy for. but overall i liked it. it had a number of small wonderful moments, like when josh brolin opens the suitcase full of dough at the mexican stand-off and just sighs, 'yeah', before going on to make all the inevitable, stupid choices that you rightly complained about. one correction: brolin was bringing water for the mexican, not kerosene .

Dahl said...

You are right about the water. . . you are actually the second person to point that out to me today, after a girl who walked out of the theater 40 minutes into the movie. She told me, though, that going back with kerosene to blow the whole thing up would have been smarter than just showing up with water.