Monday, December 24, 2007

No Country for Obvious Endings

Now that the work dragon has been more-or-less slayed until New Year’s Eve, I’m taking a few moments to discuss something peculiar I noted in No Country for Old Men, which I finally saw a week ago. One-sentence review: Movie is good. However, if you haven’t seen it, don’t read this post, as it gives away a few plot points that you’re better off encountering fresh.

My problem doesn’t lie in the film’s ending, which many reviews have saddled with that seeming verbal paradox “decidedly ambiguous.” Indeed, that last seen does seem more philosophical than the events that lead up to it. (How does one carry fire in a horn, anyway?) But what stood out most to me about No Country for Old Men was its bisected nature. It seemed to have been directed by two different people — two different Coen brothers? — with one helming the more violent first half and another taking over the second, which spares viewers the blood and violence splattered all over the first.

I believe I can pinpoint the switch from Gutsville to the Land of Tasetful Cutaway Shots on the scene in which Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) blows away Stephen Root’s character in the office highrise. (Root, by the way, struck me as horribly miscast. Not that he can’t act as well as anybody else in the film, but I can’t see the guy on screen and not remember Milton Waddams, Jimmy James and Bill Dauterive. So sad the fate of the typecast actor trying to break out.) Anyway, Chigurh plugs Root near the collarbone. Blood goes everywhere. Then the accountant who had been having a business meeting moments before Roots’ life ended so abruptly asks Chigurh if he too will die. Given what the audience knows about Chigurh’s character at this point in the film — that he’d pop you with his air-operated cattle stunner as soon as share breathing space with you — it seems certain that the accountant’s head would soon yield its contents for some sort of Pollock-esque display of chunky ragout. The audience, however, never sees it.

This sends a strange precedent throughout the remainder of the film. Whereas the Coens relish in the violence of the film’s first half — from the initial cop being choked to death with his own handcuffs to the harrowing duel between Chigurh and Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) — the death of Roots’ character marks the final graphic shuffling-off. Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) character dies, but the viewer is spared having to see his character’s final moments. Chigurh whacks a poultry farmer just to steal his car, but all we see is chicken feathers being washed from the truck bed after the fact, even though Chigurh graphically killed another man during a carjacking earlier in the film. Even when Moss finally runs out of luck, the viewer on sees the aftermath, not the shooting itself. (Nor do they see exactly how the poolside strumpet ended up floating face down in the water.) Moss’s (played by Beth Grant of Donnie Darko fame) irritating mother-in-law then dies off-screen, presumably from her long battle with cancer. Then Moss's wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) dies too, presumably from her long battle with Chigurh. And while one could easily argue that seeing her get it would be just too hard, especially after her having survived the movie for so long and having just buried her mother, the fact that the movie only implies Carla Jean's murder — Chigurh checks his feet after leaving the house, presumably checking for blood — keeps in line with its newfound delicate sensibilities.

Very strange, anyway, and something to keep me thinking, even one week after I saw the film. If you’re seeking an antidote to yuletide treacle — or you’re trying to spice up another Jews Go to the Movies Day — go see No Country for Old Men. And then if you can help explain why graphic violence so suddenly goes out of style, I’ll be your friend.

Two bonus No Country for Old Men bits: (One) The film's Wikipedia page notes that Woody Harrelson's being cast is coincidental in that Cormac McCarthy's original book makes a passing reference to the murder of a Judge John Wood. Harrelson's real-life father was the one who killed that very judge. And (two) for me, watching the film was further coincidental by virtue of the fact that I saw Westworld on DVD the day before. Westworld features Josh Brolin's dad, James Brolin. In both films, the respective Brolin is unexpectedly gunned down. Take that, Brolins.

4 comments:

  1. My friend said he was on edge the entire time we were watching the film. I'd probably have to go with that explanation. By the time the story gets to nighttime duel between Moss and Chigurh, the audience already expects to witness ultra violent gore. Seeing any more from that point on lessens its impact. Even though there were enough clues to piece together each death in the second half, I was always anxious for a scene that explicitly shows the action. I was like that until the cut to credits. Great way to captivate my attention.

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  2. twoinstincts9:46 AM

    I noticed a change somewhere around the same point. I assumed that the Coens had just decided that they'd already justified the price of admission and half-assed it through the rest of the movie. As Mr Batalla was tightening his grip on the seat, I was looking around to see if I could make it outside for a smoke without bothering people.

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  3. The biggest reason, I think, is you'd just get immune to it. The worst death is the first, if for no other reason than it's the only one Chigurh seems to enjoy (there's a distinctly sexual menace to the garroting, no? especially with the look on his face). Even he seems to get tired of the killing as the film goes on.

    But there are other reasons. As you say, you don't get to see any of the major characters get murdered, although many do. That's a kind of respect for us, especially with Carla Jean, as she's the only one we really like who gets it. It's the Coens' version of Chigurh's code--as immoral as he is, he has rules. Carla Jean probably gets killed as much for pointing out his rules are screwy (by refusing to call the coin toss) than because Chigurh had promised Llewelyn to kill her.

    And then there's this--one reason it's no country for old men is you can't ever live long enough to be old. Chigurh never has to kill Tommy Lee Jones' character because he's dead inside; his whole life battling the bad never prepared him for the battle with evil.

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  4. The ending is full circle with the beginning. We open on a drug deal massacre gone entirely wrong, we see no action and yet we can visualize every death. We dont' see the carnage at the end, but we can imagine every bullet and every spray of blood.

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