Sunday, February 24, 2008
Storywh0re's Oscar Series - No Country for Old Men (Spoiler Warning)
THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
- W.B. Yeats, "Sailing to Byzantium"
No Country For Old Men opens in the Texas desert in the 1970’s. In voiceover, Tommy Lee Jones's character, Sheriff Ed Bell, talks about how times have changed, especially the job of a local sheriff. He mentions the prospect of finding an evil beyond understanding out in the metaphorical and literal wilderness.
We see the arrest of a man dressed in black, who quickly kills the arresting deputy. He then uses a stolen police car to pull over an innocent stranger and cut them down with his weapon of choice—a compressed-air stun gun intended for cattle. We soon learn that this is ruthless hit man Anton Chigurh
It also quickly becomes obvious why Chigurh is in town. Hunter Llewellyn Moss comes across the scene of a drug-related massacre, and finds a satchel containing two million dollars. From there, a bloody cat-and-mouse game ensues that encompasses Moss, his wife, Chigurh, Bell, and bounty hunter Carson Wells.
Movie audiences are very used to seeing Tommy Lee Jones as a lawman; but this is a more nuanced performance than before. Imagine one of his U.S. Marshall characters, twenty years down the road. I enjoyed seeing Kelly Macdonald as Carla Jean Moss. I first saw this Scottish actress in the fabulous Intermission, and here she does a mean Texas accent. However, I'd have to say that the stand-out performance goes to Javier Bardem as Chigurh. His presence is off-kilter, unsettling, and yet somehow mesmerizing. Ironically, that awful late-70s haircut is part of it.
There are some interesting gender dynamics in this story. While there is a great tenderness between Llewellyn and his wife, their relationship is very traditional for the time. He makes all of the decisions, but unfortunately, he makes remarkably dumb ones, and it is hard to watch her struggle to keep up. In a way, all of the male characters are working out their (often cliché') notions of what masculinity means. Wonderfully dry, funny dialog helps punctuate this. Bell is surprisingly open with his feelings and has a relationship of equals with his wife; but Moss and Chigurh let their pride take over them. While Carla Jean is a well-drawn character, her fate is cliché. Cormack McCarthy, author of the source novel, missed a ripe opportunity there. It would have shattered expectations had she been a killer instead of killed.
The narrative shifts in the middle, from focusing on Moss to focusing on Bell. This was slightly jarring to me, especially since I had been wishing for more of Bell's story up to that point. The plot is like a small war there in the desert, which is interesting, because the recently-ended Vietnam war looms large. The importance of choice seems to be a theme. Also, each character's struggle, while interconnected, is also highly individual. The ending is startlingly abrupt and deliberately unsatisfying. We see that Chigurh suffers, on an ongoing basis, for his misdeeds; but we're reminded that life rarely gives us sweeping meaning and tidy conclusions. Instead, there is just wistfulness about the passage of time.